Mine for Keeps by Jean Little is a long-time favorite book of mine. Little so perfectly captures the emotions of her characters that all readers will relate to them, whether they’re the intended audience of elementary-school children or forty-something-year-old adults like me. Mine for Keeps, along with Little’s other stories about young people with disabilities, remains among the best fiction out there on the topic. As an additional perk, Little’s books are set in Canada.
The main character of Mine for Keeps has cerebral palsy. While Sal’s experiences might differ from mine, her feelings continually resonated with me. Take for instance the first situation which Sal finds herself having to face. Sal had been living at the Allendale School for Handicapped Children for over five years, but now was going home to stay, and she was scared. “It was all very well to wish and wish and wish to go home, when you were sure you wouldn’t really have to do it. But once such a wish came true, it meant living the life you were used to and beginning a new one full of unfamiliar places and people.” This describes exactly how I felt when my web design job took me in 1998 from Canada to the United States. I can’t tell you how many other times my husband and I have expressed this sentiment about new situations we take on, ones which at first excite us but upon the moment of reckoning terrify us.
Countless other examples show how Little not only understands young people, but also every day experiences that we all face to some degree. When Sal’s mom leaves her to put on new clothes, ones which Sal thinks might have difficult buttons and zippers, Sal rebelled. In spite of the warm feelings Sal had felt towards her family just moments ago, now all Sal can think about how she wants to return to her old school where she knew how to do everything, felt safe, and never got left alone with a task. When Sal starts her new school, she finds herself surrounded by a sea of strangers and nothing felt right. There were too many faces. She was making too much noise. Everything she did was wrong. Again, I can’t tell you how many times that new situations have made me nervous and even lead me to tears. Sometimes I have like Sal wanted to bail on them and return to the familiar. Thankfully, like Sal, I also usually have a loved one who will hold my hand, comfort me, but also tell me, “Maybe you will learn how to be happy if you try a little longer.”
All of the above scenarios are ones which arose due to Sal having cerebral palsy, but which most of us will relate on some level, and that’s part of what I most appreciate about Little’s portrayal of special needs. While not ignoring how cerebral palsy will impact Sal’s daily routines, Little takes care to give Sal center stage as a real person who has beautiful days and rotten days. In contrast to the average story about young people with disabilities, Sal isn’t the secondary character. Nor is her pivotal role to teach her family a lesson in how to care or accept disabilities. Nor does Sal suddenly develop some superhuman power that gravitates herself to her. Moreover, although some of Sal’s challenges arose directly from her having cerebral palsy, others are ones which she faces simply because of what life tends to throw into our path. Such as having a classmate hate her outright due to being jealous of the attention Sal received by being the new girl. Such as having to share a room with a younger sister, who allows her no privacy. Such as wondering why a brother of her friend bullied everyone. And such as struggling to train her new dog.
The latter is core to the plot of Mine for Keeps. All the siblings in Sal’s family have pets. Her brother argues that Sal should have one too. Never mind that Kent has the ulterior motive of hoping she’ll get dog and the dog will become his. Sal is given the choice of which dog she wants and picks a scared Westland Terrier. Although Sal succeeds wonderfully in making Susie feel loved and welcomed into the family, Sal has no idea how to train her new dog. As such, Susie jumps on the bed when she desires. She grabs food if it tantalizes her. And she runs from the family when it suits her purposes. The latter half of Mine for Keeps is about how Sal and her friends unite to train all of their respective pets. Part of their motivation is a desire to own well-behaved pets. Another reason though is to show a troubled boy that despite illness he can still train his own dog. And if he can still train his own dog, maybe he’ll come to accept his new home in Canada and keep his dream alive to become a professional trainer.
Mine for Keeps is a rich novel which has remained surprisingly timeless. Despite being written in 1962, over fifty years ago, it’s also a stellar example of how books featuring characters with disabilities should be written. Sal daily has to reckon with her disability, but she also has to negotiate family, friends, and pets. As such, Mine for Keeps is a book which we can all relate, whatever our circumstance in life.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?