Ava and her brother, Fred, grow up in upstate Freyburg, New York, on the grounds of what was once an esteemed “free” school run by their now aging father, Neel. Taking Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher of the Enlightenment, as his guide, Neel fervently follows the prescription in Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education, “Let there be no book but the world.”
So up to second grade, Ava and her brother and her best friend, Kitty, are allowed to roam free through the woods without much of a formal educational agenda. When she shows an interest, Ava, is taught how to read music by her mother, Neel’s common-law wife, June, to the consternation of her father who feels Ava should just be encouraged to play by ear and thump around on various musical instruments.
Ava and Kitty soon prevail on their parents to release them from home schooling into the waiting arms of the local school system. There they thrive, especially Ava, who yearns for a life governed by fixity, rules, and conventions, even religion and is eager to escape the preachings and clinical observations of her somewhat sanctimonious father.
Facing greater odds at reintegrating into society, however, is Fred. Disdaining labels for him such as “cognitively impaired,” or “autistic,” the parents keep Fred on the loose after he fails miserably at fitting in to the mainstream school. Since he has never been tested and the causes of his “differences” are never divulged, no one really knows what he is or is not capable of. His speech is very impaired and often intelligible only to his sister; he throws frequent tantrums, banging on pots, trees, and the ground in patterns discernible only to him. Is he endowed with normal intelligence? No one knows or seeks to find out. The parents never question their decisions. Ava and Kitty include him in their games at times, but he seems to have no other peer contact.
Fast forward a few years: the parents are deceased. Ava has married Kitty’s brother and lost contact with Fred whom June palmed off on an scarcely known acquaintance, hoping Fred could earn a living doing manual labor for him. Tragedy strikes: a young boy is discovered dead in the woods and Fred is implicated in his murder. Ava vaguely remembers that there was one disquieting incident with another young boy years before – is Fred a danger? Ava must decide on her responsibility toward Fred, even her guilt, and decide whether to take up her lifelong burden again of interpreting Fred to the rest of the world.
What is compelling in this story, beyond the story itself, is the question of responsibility. How do we know what the consequences will be of our child rearing decisions? Neel obviously believes he is doing the right thing in not stigmatizing his “different” child; his wife has doubts but acquiesces in the treatment of their son. Could corrective treatment, therapy, medications have aided him in becoming a better functioning adult? No one in the book consults him on what he wants, beyond roaming free in the woods. Wasn’t there an obligation to do so?
So many parents today are struggling with decisions on how best to provide for their “special” children: are these children being overmedicated, over sedated for conditions that are misdiagnosed, transitory or nonexistent? How is one to know and how is one to have the courage to go against the prevailing wisdom and the prevailing experts? Does Leah Hager Cohen answer this conundrum with her quote on a flyleaf preceding her novel:
I know everything.
Half of it I really know,
The rest I make up.
The rest I make up.
from Maria Irene Fornes’s Promenade
In No Book but the World, the consequences are tragic. An unsupervised, unsocialized Fred has perhaps committed a grievous crime. No one can interpret for him in this case and no one can ever really know what happened. It’s an uncertainty and feeling of powerlessness that most of us are uncomfortable acknowledging. And when something goes wrong and decisions are seen to be faulty, who is to blame?
Cohen writes beautifully and succeeds in putting us squarely in the point of view of her main characters, Ava, Kitty, Dennis and even Fred. It is hard not to conclude the real culprit might be the father, Neel, who never seems to question his own theories and never stops to reflect on the inadvisability of using his own children as guinea pigs in a scientific experiment. Poor Fred has never gotten a chance to be taught alternate means of communication and remains an opaque, unknowable presence in the lives of even his closed family.
Ava is scarred in her own way and seems to feel safe only on her own turf, married to a childhood friend, certainly an underachiever exercising a métier curiously similar to her mother’s - as a sing-along lady in local children’s libraries. The reader ends up feeling sorry for all concerned and concluding that sometimes innate common sense needs to triumph over academic theory.
Cohen is currently The Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross and on the faculty of the Lesley University MFA Creative Writing program. She has published both non-fiction and fiction and No Book but the World is her fifth novel.