Story of Beautiful Girl (Simon)

The Story of Beautiful Girl
Rachel Simon, 2011
Grand Central Publishing
346 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780446574464

It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten.

Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: "Hide her."

And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia—lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Newark, New Jersey, USA
Education—B.A., Bryn Mawr College; M.F.A, Sarah
   Lawrence College
Awards—several philanthropical (below)
Currently—lives in Wilmington, Delaware

Rachel Simon is an American author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her six books include the 2011 novel The Story of Beautiful Girl and the 2002 memoir Riding The Bus With My Sister. Her work has been adapted for film, television, radio, and stage.

Simon was born in New Jersey and spent most of her first sixteen years in the New Jersey towns of Newark, Millburn, Irvington, and Succasunna. During that time, she began writing short stories and novels, which she shared widely with friends and teachers but never submitted to editors. When Rachel was eight, her parents split up. She and her three siblings remained with their mother for eight years, and then moved to Easton, Pennsylvania to live with their father, with Rachel also becoming a boarding student at Solebury School in New Hope, PA.

Rachel studied anthropology at Bryn Mawr College and graduated in 1981. She then moved to the Philadelphia area and worked at a variety of jobs, including supervisor of researchers for a television study at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 1988.

Just before graduating, she won the Writers At Work short story contest, and when she attended the Writers At Work conference that June in Park City, Utah, she decided to be more courageous than she’d been as a teenager. She brought multiple copies of a collection of short stories, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, that she’d just completed and handed them to every agent and editor who was interested. An editor from Houghton Mifflin bought the manuscript six weeks later and published it to critical acclaim in 1990.

Until 2011, when The Story of Beautiful Girl was published, Rachel Simon was best known for her memoir, Riding The Bus With My Sister (2002). A national bestseller, it became a seminal book in the disability community and a frequent selection on high school reading lists. It was also adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2005 and has been rebroadcast frequently on the Hallmark Channel. The film stars Rosie O' Donnell as Rachel’s sister Beth and Andie McDowell as Rachel, and was directed by Anjelica Huston.

The success of the book and adaptation of Riding The Bus With my Sister led to Rachel becoming a widely sought-after speaker around the country. The book has also received numerous awards, including a Secretary Tommy G. Thompson Recognition Award for Contributions to the Field of Disability from the US Department of Health and Human Services; a TASH Image Award for positive portrayals of people with disabilities; and a Media Access Award from California Governor's Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities.

Other adaptations of Rachel Simon’s work include the title story from Little Nightmares, Little Dreams (1990), which has been adapted for both the National Public Radio program Selected Shorts, and the Lifetime program “The Hidden Room.” Another story from that collection, “Paint,” was adapted for the stage by the Arden Theatre Company (Philadelphia).

Rachel’s other titles are the novel The Magic Touch (Viking, 1994), the memoir The House on Teacher's Lane (2010); and an inspirational book for writers, The Writer's Survival Guide (1997). She has received creative writing fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation.

Personal life
She is married to Hal Dean, an architect whom she met shortly after she graduated from college. Their highly unusual, nineteen-year-long path to marriage, is recounted in The House On Teacher’s Lane. They now live in Wilmington, Delaware. Rachel visits frequently with her sister Beth, whose love of bus riding is chronicled in Riding The Bus With My Sister, and who does still ride the buses. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
In this enthralling love story, Lynnie, a young white developmentally disabled woman with limited speech, and Homan, a deaf African-American man, meet at the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded in the late 1960s. Despite strict rules, poor conditions, an abusive staff, and the couple's lack of language, Lynnie and Homan share tender moments. After their escape, a few days of freedom not only enables the secretly pregnant Lynnie to give birth outside the walls of the corrupt institution, it also secures the couple's admiration for one another. Fears of discovery force them to leave the baby in the hands of a nurturing widow, Martha Zimmer. Soon after, the school's staff apprehend Lynnie, while Homan flees. Although their stories diverge and unfold independently of one another, memories of their short time together sustain them for more than 40 years as they develop the confidence to eventually parent, learn to sign and speak, and finally, reunite. Simon (Riding the Bus with My Sister) who grew up with a developmentally disabled sister, has written an enormously affecting read, and provided sensitive insight into a complex world often dismissed by the "abled."
Publishers Weekly

Simon, author of the best-selling memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, returns with a touching novel about three lives forever intertwined as the result of a quick meeting. Homan, black and deaf, and Lynnie, white and developmentally delayed, have fallen in love and escape together from the miserable confines of a 1960s Pennsylvania institution for the "feeble-minded," The School. They seek refuge at the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. Employees of The School track down Lynnie and Homan, but before Lynnie is forced to return, she reveals to Martha a precious secret: she has given birth. The novel covers the decades following Lynnie's return to The School, Homan's escape, and Martha's life after she decides what to do with the child. Verdict: At times tender, at times heartbreaking, this novel will appeal to fans of Simon's previous work and anyone interested in the deplorable treatment in the not-so-distant past of those with disabilities. —Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. What did you learn that you didn’t already know about the history of people with disabilities and the ways in which they were routinely treated by society? What did you learn about how people with disabilities might live today? Consider the lives of people you know who have a disability. Did the experiences of Lynnie and Homan change or shed light on your understanding of them?

2. Martha’s former students provide her with support for the first several years of Julia’s life. Was there a teacher in your life who meant as much to you as Martha meant to her students?

3. Why do you think Martha took on the incredible responsibility of raising another woman’s child instead of contacting the proper authorities? What would you have done in her place?

4. At the time Lynnie was a child, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to place their children with disabilities in an institution. Do you know anyone who had a child who was like Lynnie at that time? What choice did they make for their child, and how did that decision play out in their lives?

5. Kate breaks rules for Lynnie, doing such things as letting her draw pictures in her office and giving her a private place to see Buddy. When is it appropriate for professionals to go against official policy?

6. Lynnie does not want Kate to go in search of the baby and Kate says she will honor Lynnie’s wishes. What do you think of Kate’s decision to do this? Kate also secretly goes against Lynnie’s wishes, but does not tell her. Was this the right thing to do?

7. Homan is up against incredible odds in making his way in the world, especially once his uncle Blue dies. Discuss the ways that race, impairment, illiteracy, and institutionalization play a part in how he interacts with the world and how the world reacts to him.

8. Homan does not have a mental disability, yet he gets stuck in an institution for those who do. When he’s out in the world, people often shout at him, as if that will help him understand or even hear them. Discuss an interaction you’ve observed between a person with a disability and someone he didn’t know, where incorrect assumptions made real understanding impossible.

9. Homan realizes in the faith healing scene that he isn’t so sure he wants to be “fixed.” Why does he have so little interest? Sam also does not pursue healing, and the subject of being healed never even comes up for Lynnie. What do you think Rachel Simon is saying through her characters’ indifference to being “fixed”?

10. What do you think happened between Sam and Strawberry that led him to cry, and then to lose his interest in the free-wheeling life he and Homan had been living? Why do you think the man in the house at the top of the long front steps closed the door in Homan’s face?

11. When Julia is a baby in the stroller, Martha thinks about the history of words like “pajamas.” Later, when Julia is nearing school age, she collects wigs that she uses to spell words. How do these references to language foreshadow what happens when Julia is a teenager?

12. Do you think Julia’s lack of knowledge about her parents plays a part in her emotional development as a teenager, and as an adult? Was it right for Martha not to tell her the truth?

13. How does art create links between the characters throughout the book, and what is the role it plays in the final chapter?

14. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, readers learn that the character of Homan was based on a real person. How does this knowledge affect your experience of the book?

15. Each character has a relationship to spirituality. Discuss how and if each changes over time. What do you think Rachel Simon was trying to say by including this aspect of all the characters’ lives?

16. Discuss the symbolism of the lighthouse man. Is it meant to be taken purely literally, or is there a metaphorical aspect to it as well?

17. Rachel Simon has said in interviews that the character of Homan follows a journey that has some overlaps with the episodes Odysseus went through in The Odyssey. What similarities do you see between the stories of Homan and Odysseus? Does The Story of Beautiful Girl conjure up other myths, folk tales, or fairy tales?

18. Romantic relationships between characters with disabilities are rare in fiction. How is the romance between Homan and Lynnie like the romances of characters in fiction who don’t have disabilities? How is it different?

19. The Story of Beautiful Girl is ultimately a story about love—romantic love, familial love, the love between friends. In what ways are the characters of the novel transformed by love, both given and received?

20. The epigraph of the novel is “Telling our stories is holy work.” Who does the “our” refer to in this book? What other groups of people can you think of whose stories have been hidden from society?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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