Dolphins in the Mud, Jo Ramsey
Publisher: Featherweight Press
Genre: LGBTQ (G), Family, Special Needs, Contemporary
Length: 192 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
Purchase At: amazon.com
A Young Adult LGBTQ read with heart and meaning.
When I bought Dolphins in the Mud, I didn’t realise it was a Young Adult book. But it most certainly is a YA book. The main character is a sixteen year old gay male. Chris is the person narrating. The book isn’t romantic as much as it’s about family, life, and a difficult, hard-life-lessons period in a teenage boys life. I must say the premise is good, the book well executed, and while the few secondary teenagers that come across the page are tame, they are all pretty age-typical. A lot of heart went into writing about Cece and her Autism, and Noah. I won’t talk about Noah as his part of the story is best read. The book also takes a long, hard look at the fracturing effect special needs children, of any age, with any problems, can have on a family. There are two ‘issues’ that are covered in this book that are important and I found the writing to be pretty accurate, sympathetic and realistic about both.
Dolphins in the Mud is primarily about Chris Talberman and his family, who move to Wellfleet so his nine year old sister, Cecelia, or Cece, as Chris calls her, can go to a special needs school. In the beginning we find Cece banging her toy dolphin on a window calling out “dolph,” as she’s noticed Dolphins in the local cove. They have literally become stuck in the mud, needing rescuing. Cece is besotted with dolphins and escapes through an unlocked door with Chris chasing, only to have Cece stopped before she gets to the mud and water by another young man, Noah.
Noah Silver is from a very wealthy family that spends time living in various towns and cities, including a few months of the year spent at Wellfleet. He is shunned or thought weird by the other local teenagers, and he has an overbearing/overprotective father and mother who only allow him to be home schooled with limited to no access to other children. One of the threads through the story is Chris does find Noah attractive and vice versa which develops into a friendship that could lead to more.
The primary story, though, is how Chris is made responsible for a very long time with Cece’s care. Their mother is always ducking out of the house to run ‘errands’ and leaves Cece with Chris way too much for a sibling. He helps his mum pick Cece up from the van after school, brings her home, helps with her daily schedule – snacks, exercise and TV – without fail. You know that there is a growing resentment from the mother towards Cecelia and she takes her frustration out on Chris. If anything goes wrong Chris gets chewed out. When Cece runs down to Drummers Cove, to the “dolphs,” it was because her mother didn’t lock the door after their father went to work. Yet, she’s angry with Chris for not running faster to catch Cece; and allowing someone else to stop her. Their mother is embarrassed by Cece and her Autism, she harbours the guilt of feeling somehow, some way, she did something to make her daughter the way she is.
I felt sorry for Chris’s mother. She’s tired, she’s frazzled, but she won’t go about getting help through her own stubbornness and embarrassment. I also felt very angry at Chris’s mother. And his father. However, I understand the difficulties of raising a special needs child. It can be very hard, particularly if you don’t avail yourself of help, or don’t get into the right mindset. Chris had more maturity than both his parents. He constantly has to help his mother, puts up with her emotions and frustrations. Chris is caught up in the ‘special needs child trap’ where the family is tied up with worry and frustrations about the child with special needs, forgetting about the needs of the other sibling. Chris is forgotten, at times, and roped into doing more than he should ever have to the rest of the time.
Eventually Cece and Chris’s mother cracks under the pressure, leaving her family one day with no warning. Cece is stranded on the van and Chris has to go through hell and high water to get her released into his care. He takes Cece home only to find no one there. He rings his father who is at a loss as to why his wife wouldn’t be at home. Leaving sixteen year old Chris to, once again, look after Cece. Their father is utterly clueless as to what his autistic daughter’s needs are, how to care for Cece. Chris’s father has had no idea the extent to which Chris has had to care for Cece, as he drives over two hours to work and back everyday in Boston, and is busy earning money to support the family.
Chris runs the emotional gauntlet – guilt about telling people how much responsibility his mother has passed off to him, that she has been leaving every day to run ‘errands’, being a protective older brother, needing to be able to just be a kid himself, scared of missing out on a social life. On top of this he is gay teenager and has had to leave his boyfriend when they moved to the new town. He doesn’t know many people in the area, let alone who may be (un)sympathetic or interested in his orientation. On more than one occasion Chris has to cancel movie nights to care for his sister.
Meanwhile Chris and Noah are developing more of a friendship. Noah is a strange boy, there is a sadness and an innate loneliness in him. Sometimes he asks a lot of questions, but just as easily as he asks he also deflects questions about himself, he is socially awkward or inept actually – he’s home schooled, travels all year, and is never able to form friendships that teenagers need so much to develop into socially aware adults. There is also more to Noah which you see gradually but which really comes out in the latter stages of the book. Once again Ms Ramsey handles the topic pretty well.
Eventually things come to a crisis point for Chris. His mother has admitted to an affair while running ‘errands’ that he unknowingly covered for and he lets all his emotions out. After he witnesses something upsetting his father steps up to the plate, realises his son and his daughter need him to parent them, and get the balance of work and family right. They also realise that mum is not coming back to the family, she has left them, which causes much hurt and thus anger for Chris.
Dolphins in the Mud is a bittersweet YA book that has nothing exciting or action packed going on. It’s not like reading Vampire Academy or Mortal Instruments – it’s a quiet, introspective, personal look at more than one family going through a difficult time, and parallels between them. Although it may not suit everyone, there are more than a few adults and teenagers who would be able to relate to this book. It’s about family, the various friendships you can form in your life, teenage years, and how they aren’t always easy. It’s also about mental health and special needs issues, which are more prevalent that people may realise. I’m glad I bought it, and I’m glad I read it. It left me feeling like there was hope for all the people in the book. Nothing unrealistic, just a feeling that they would overcome obstacles and be better people for having encountered them. That Chris’ altered family would be better for the changes, that Noah would now find a better place in his life as well. I found the characters stayed with me after finishing the book.
If you like YA and are not put off by an LGBTQ slant, it is not about sex rather people, then this is a well intentioned, well written book, with both heart and real meaning.