Shields & Campion, The Company of Others

If you've read anything recently posted here, you'll think I'm lying: honestly, though, tears don't come easily to me when I'm reading. Not that I giggled at Bambi or chuckled at Tiny Tim or anything, but it's just not a standard option for me, and I'm genuinely surprised when it happens. A friend I used to have told me once that he always knew when stress was getting to him, because he couldn't watch TV commercials anymore without tearing up. That's part of the reason for why I've been responding that way more often recently, sure, but this time, I'm blaming the book. And I'm right to do that.

Sandra Shields and David Campion's little book The Company of Others: Stories of Belonging is exactly as moving and extraordinary as its blurb claims it is. (I've complained repeatedly on this blog about the blurb as a cursedly misleading genre, as misguided in their own way as rantings about the Elders of Zion, or even the self-importantly polysyllabic stylings of Conrad Black, but this blurb is on the money -- Arsenal Pulp Press is to be commended for its prose here! And certainly for the book itself, as well.)

The Company of Others was produced with the cooperation of PLAN (Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network), an international group that helps facilitate and maintain social networks intended to support the vulnerable among us. The content is deceptively simple: five short photo-essays with accompanying text, each essay offering a portrait of a different Canadian social network connected to PLAN. The key figures in the circles seem unremarkable themselves: Jeff Moorcroft, who has an intellectual disability; Betty Terbasket, an Okanagan grandmother whose memory is fading; Margaret Enns, who has Down's Syndrome; Rick Ottoni, who has schizophrenia; and Erin Tesan, who like Jeff has an intellectual disability. Shields and Campion spent a week or two with each circle, just going grocery shopping and to the mall and to church, and spending time at home with the members of the circles.

I started dipping into the book as soon as I bought it, after admiring Shields' and Campion's work from afar on their site Field Notes, enough that I tried to find some way to get them at the June 2009 ASLE conference at UVic, but I couldn't keep dipping in. Coffee-table books, like National Geographic magazine for me, are books I can spend a few minutes at a time occupying, and I thought I could do that with this book, which in spite of its very small size (6.6" x 6") looks like a miniaturized version of a coffee-table book. But nope. I kept spending longer and longer with it, and having to start again and again, until finally one day last week I decided just to read the thing.

Except that I was in a hurry, and I had to walk across campus finishing it off as I headed for my daughter's school. And that's when the tears started, so many that I had to sit down for a minute to catch my breath.

I don't know what the future will hold for my daughter, who has some special needs from causes nobody has been able to pinpoint. I barely understand what the present holds for her. But PLAN, and the book that Sandra Shields and David Campion have put out with/for them, left me feeling engaged, and afraid, and invigorated, at the prospect of living in this present as fully as we can. The warmth and the richness of the lives documented in The Company of Others made me feel like I was coming home. And as the parent of a child with special needs, that's a feeling you'll go a long way for.

Sandra, David: I hope I get the chance to meet you one of these days, so I can shake your hands. But you'd better be prepared for a hug. I do my best to read books I expect to find valuable, so I tend not to blow much time on books that I expect won't earn a place on my shelves, but this one is getting put on a lot of other people's shelves this Christmas. Thank you for this, enormously.


Anonymous said…
Yes this is a great book -- I know what you mean about the tears -- suddenly there they are. I had the pleasure of working on this book with the publisher

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