Gwyn Hyman Rubio offers us a chance to explore the subject of difference with ICY SPARKS, her charming tale of a little girl bewildered by the onset of Tourette's Syndrome. Growing up in the rural Kentucky Mountains of the 1950s, Icy Sparks is a bright, savvy 10-year-old. Suddenly overwhelmed with urges to jerk, croak and pop out her eyes, she is dismayed and baffled at the things her body does without her permission.
In a voice which candidly conveys her frustration, Icy describes her first compulsion: "I could feel little invisible rubber bands fastened to my eyelids, pulled tight through my brain, and attached to the back of my head. Every few seconds, a crank behind my head turned slowly. With each turn, the rubber bands yanked harder, and the space inside my head grew smaller." Rubio maintains this fresh voice and astutely descriptive language throughout the book. She also gives Icy and her small circle of companions --- her grandparents and her older friend Miss Emily --- the same warm, dry sense of humor typically found in Southern novels such as THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. These moments of levity lighten the difficult scenes where Icy retreats to her grandparents' cellar to hide her ticks and her brief stay at the Bluegrass State Hospital.
Those of us who neither have a neurological disorder, nor know someone who has, may find it difficult to understand the plight of a person given to strange outbursts and gestures. ICY SPARKS brings home the fear and shame of a once "normal" person trying desperately to fit back in. During her stay at Bluegrass, Icy meets several children with different disorders including severe cerebral palsy. Under the tutelage of a kindhearted aide, she learns to accept people who are different.
But this doesn't seem to help Icy very much once she returns home. Permanently dismissed from the public school, Icy shuns everyone except her grandparents and Miss Emily, who is now her teacher. Icy limits her world to the family homestead and the woodlands around it, out of fear of having an episode and being jeered at. Eventually loneliness and a chance meeting with a former schoolmate provide Icy with a semblance of a preadolescent romantic life. Unfortunately, her fits --- often brought on when she is excited --- cause her new love to join the rest of the community in shunning her.
It is disappointing to watch a young girl spend her teen years without a single friend her own age. What was the point of sending Icy away to a mental institution if she was to return with the same problem and a sense of shame so complete she becomes a virtual recluse?
Also confusing is Icy's tendency to lie. She frequently daydreams silly stories then tries to convince people that they are true, such as declaring that her vicious 4th grade teacher is a woodpecker by night. This happens so often, and the motivation is so unclear, that it is difficult to tell if this is being attributed to the Tourette's or not. Rubio's style which is frank and insightful in both dialogue and narration, falls short in explanation for these actions.
However disappointing her decisions, Icy is feisty character. When pushed too far by her teacher she has a fit in which she repeatedly shouts "Piss on you!" and "Mean ole bitch." When Miss Emily assures Icy that her disorder makes her an outcast just like Miss Emily's own obesity --- "You must accept the fact that touch isn't possible for people like us. We might be liked. We might even earn a town respect. But we're different --- too different. We exist beyond the comfort of touch.," Icy becomes determined to be loved by someone.
During a country revival meeting Icy finally discovers her pacifier, the thing which allows her to overcome her ticks and croaks and be accepted by others: singing. The pivotal scene will not reform any skeptics of revival meetings but it will bring satisfaction as Icy regains her lost confidence.
ICY SPARKS is a warm story about appearances, secrets and truth. Through one girl's difficult journey we get the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of an unwilling outcast who still harbors a great deal of hope.
Reviewed by Sofrina Hinton on January 22, 2011
- Publication Date: February 26, 2013
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
- ISBN-10: 0142000205
- ISBN-13: 9780142000205