Book Review: The Heart of Applebutter Hill (Donna Hill)
Reviewed by Kristen Witucki
Have you ever read a book containing a blind girl who works on mysteries, with her brain, her heart and her senses, rather than unknowable, unattainable psychic powers? Have you read a book which combines protecting the gem with magical powers, a guide dog and improving braille skills? Have you wanted to read a positive but complex portrayal of blindness, a gripping adventure, or a book to help to feel less alone in a situation of bullying? If you haven't, now you can. Buy a copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill, know that your proceeds will help blind children read, and prepare to be transformed and transfixed by Donna Hill's self-published novel. It is five years old; yet it is both young and timeless.
Abigail Jones may have one of the more ordinary names in this book, but she is far from an ordinary character. Cast away from her birth home on the island of Adiaphora, she has traveled to Lodahg, the mainland, before the book opens, where she must make her way in the world. But she is also "living on the fringes of two worlds. She wasn't totally blind, and there was no way of knowing if or when she ever would be. Nevertheless , she couldn't see normally. Her sight had become a wild animal — beautiful and dangerous. It was an unpredictable, ever-changing display of shadows and blurry glimpses, tunnels and glaring light. The only things she could say for sure were that she couldn't see at night, and that her peripheral vision was … well, gone." She is usually not sighted enough and occasionally not blind enough to be truly understood in her birth home.
Fortunately, perhaps, she reaches Lodahg, gains some blindness skills and a guide dog, Curly Connor, and settles in the carriage house of her new guardian, Mrs. Plumkettle. Yet she doesn't always feel at home. Abigail is initially conscious that the carriagehouse, while comfortable, is a separate world from her new guardian, just as her world floats between sight and blindness. Her school, while wonderfully modern in its education methods, is not immune to Lodahg natives who pick on the refugees whom they feel have taken resources. Her alternative resource teacher, Ms. Kiffle, is wonderfully creative, nonjudgmental and full of suggestions, but her only blind role model, Susan, fits the mold of what people expect a star blind person to be, congenitally totally blind, a fluent braille reader who participates in everything. "Abigail knew she was supposed to be inspired by her, but she felt hopelessly inadequate."
Even so, Abigail does settle in at Lodahg. She makes friends, both among fellow Adiaphoran refugees and the Lodahg locals. But life takes a mysterious turn when she leaves on a vacation from her guardian's estate to stay at the Blusterbuffs' home, in close proximity to her best friend, Baggy Britches. The two friends become entangled in the web of a mystery surrounding the location and well-being of the Heartstone of Arden-Goth which is both the root and the flower of nightmarish events happening among the students. Animals are disappearing, friends are being hurt. People with influence are often in the wrong, and they, ordinary refugees, do not initially have the power to overcome them.
Abigail and Baggy confront the questions we all wrestle with as we grow up. Who is a friend, and who is a foe, and how do we constantly allow the new information we learn about people to shape our ideas of them? How can we continue to reach out to people with courage and compassion even when they have betrayed us? And how can we move on through life—all of it—while absorbing facts which are agonizing and difficult? Teenagers will find these struggles very relatable as they read The Heart of Applebutter Hill.
Nevertheless, the book does have loose ends which sometimes left me wanting more. Given my penchant for past-looking, I wondered why Abigail never brooded on her parents and siblings or her former life back home. What was her life like back home? Did life become completely ordinary after the events of the book? And, as a totally blind writer, I wondered about what Abigail really could have seen. A disclaimer at the end of the book explains retinitis pigmentosa more educationally to the reader, and I thought having that information at the beginning of the book might have smoothed out confusion for readers who are not familiar with RP and the changes in what one can see with it. I also kept thinking of Susan, the totally blind "inspiration," who goes through troubles of her own as the book unfolds. Would Susan ever completely appreciate Abigail? Did the two feel they learned from each other? Should the author have smoothed out these questions, or do these interrogatives have a point themselves: that life is not always a neatly tied package or a beautifully woven tapestry? Living in the world means being part of the mess of situations left unclosed.
Like Emily St. John Mandel's tour de force, Station Eleven, this book opens like an onion, layers revealing layers revealing layers. The journey is as delightful as the destination. With a suspenseful adventure, multi-faceted human and animal protagonists, and compelling secondary characters, the novel holds a lot of promise for either solitary enjoyment or lively student group discussions. And best of all, disability is there, but it's not necessarily a preoccupation. I find a lot in this writing I can only hope one day to emulate.