Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I was convinced I'd read years ago. The way people spoke of it, it sounded like my school couldn't possibly have overlooked assigning it. But the plot points people spoke of sparked no memory whatever, so I had to read it for myself.

There are two versions of this story: a shorter version written for magazine publication, and this longer edition. I may have read the short story, which would explain my certainty I'd read this. I still didn't remember the plot.

Flowers for Algernon follows Charlie Gordon, a young man with intellectual disabilities. He has an IQ of 68, and, while he can write and holds down a job, wishes he could be smarter. He is given an opportunity to receive a treatment that will increase his intelligence; they've already had a successful trial on a mouse named Algernon.

The trial works, and Charlie's life begins to change. He earns greater respect from Alice Kinnian, the attractive teacher who recommended him for the trial, but he also starts to scare his co-workers with his newfound intelligence, and he learns they were making fun of him before. Then, the mouse's intelligence begins to decay, and he dies. Charlie experiments to find the cause before the same happens to him.

The book was published in 1966, so, fortunately, many aspects of Charlie's story would've changed in a more modern setting. He wouldn't have risked being locked up in a state institution if not for his job, though homelessness would certainly have been a concern, if he didn't have access to the resources he'd need just to know what's available to help him. One would hope his enrollment at Ms. Kinnian's school might connect him with those resources, but many still fall through the cracks.

I wish I could say that Charlie's co-workers are a relic of an earlier time, but such people are still around. People with disabilities are better integrated into their communities these days, but that doesn't mean that all of the community members are supportive and accepting.

This story is hard to read. Not necessarily because of Charlie's struggles with spelling and grammar, and his later overly intellectual writings, though that doesn't help. Charlie's struggles inspire a lot of empathy, and it's hard not to want things to work out in his favor. The ending leaves some questions as to his eventual fate, but it's clear that he's worse off for having undergone this treatment. As his intelligence declines, he can't simply be proud of all he's accomplished, because now he knows what he's missing. He can never return to his days of blissful innocence.

While the approach taken in this book somewhat romanticizes the notion of simple, innocent people like Charlie, it also highlights how people without disabilities can make the lives of those with different needs easier, or harder. The book isn't perfect, by any means, but I strongly recommend giving it a read.

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