by Laurie Frankel, 2017
What a fantastic book! What a fantastic writer! I didn’t want to read this book, but my friend, Christie, read it and said she couldn’t put it down – it was so good! So, I read it and felt the same way, even though the topic, a transgender child, is not one I wanted to read about. But, Laurie Frankel filled this book with such wonderful characters (Rosie, a doctor-wife; Penn, a writer-husband; Roo, short for Roosevelt, the oldest boy; Ben, the smart one; Rigel and Orion, twins; and the baby, Claude, who decides at the age of 3 he wants to be a girl.) The book happens in three parts: Part 1-their lives in Madison, Wisconsin, when Claude is born and when he decides he wants to be a girl; Part 2-the move to Seattle because after Mom (Rosie) tries to save a transgender gunshot wound victim who was accidentally shot but so badly beaten at a fraternity party, that she is consumed with fear that something like that may happen to Claude, who is now Poppy; Part 3-the move by Rosie and Poppy/Claude to live in Thailand briefly while Rosie runs a medical clinic in the northern rural area and Poppy/Claude teaches other children how to speak English. Thailand is where their eyes are opened to a new road – the middle road – because Thai society is so filled with transgender people that they even provide bathrooms for them.
Here are some wonderful quotes from this wonderful book:
This is a conversation between the oldest boy, Roo, and his Dad, Penn, after the parents have decided to let Claude be a girl.
“But you said kids are bad decision makers.”
“When did I say that?”
“At dinner. You said kids can’t rename themselves because they’re bad decision makers. But if kids are such bad decision makers, why are you letting Claude decide to be something he’s not?”
“Because what if he is?” said Penn.from page 95 in the chapter called, ‘Naming Rights’
Here is Penn feeling disoriented by pronouns after Claude becomes Poppy:
…Sometimes he called Poppy “he” and sometimes “she.” Sometimes he called Roo and Ben and Rigel and Orion “he” and sometimes “she.” Sometimes he called Roo “Ben” (wrong kid) or “Rufus” (wrong name) or “Rude” (not a name at all though, increasingly, not necessarily untrue either). Sometimes he called Rosie “he.” Once he introduced her at a party as his husband. He called the mailman “she.” He called the guy who fixed the brakes on the van “she.” He called the newspaper “she.” Neither Claude nor Poppy seemed bothered one way or the other, but Penn felt something essential in his brain had been severed. Whatever link you got for free that picked the appropriate pronoun whenever one was called for was permanently decoupled, and suddenly Penn’s mother tongue was foreign.from page 97 in the chapter called, ‘Push’
In Madison, Wisconsin, they let everyone know that Claude had become Poppy. This describes some of the experiences they had with parents during playdates:
Some playdates went less well. Rosie and Penn kept a no-fly list of kids with whom Poppy could not play again. One playdate ended when Poppy and the other little girl were playing princesses, and the dad made a dirty joke about drag queens. That family went on the list. One mom peppered Rosie with questions every time they ran into each other on the playground after school as to the process of physically turning Claude into Poppy, which Penn wanted to excuse on grounds that she was showing interest but which Rosie saw for what it was: impudent nosiness. Another family went on the list when Penn went to pick Poppy up and the mom and dad tag-teamed him to explain, politely, that God did not make mistakes, and since God had given Poppy a penis, he and Rosie were interfering with God’s plan. “And that’s . . . bad?” Penn guessed. He also guessed that if that family kept their own list, his name had just gone on it.from page 99 in the chapter called ‘Push’
After they moved to Seattle, they ended up just letting people believe Poppy was a girl:
They never planned to keep Claude a secret. It was an accident. It was an accident plus opportunity plus special circumstances. You can say that about a lot of things–Rigel and Orion said it, for instance, the time they lost their skateboard in the lake when they tried to use Jupiter as a sled dog during an ice storm–but this one was different because this one was huge. This one was different because it lasted (the twins had managed to keep their secret for less than ten minutes) and because it transformed so many lives. Usually secrets that do that are kept through foresight, scheme, and strategy, careful planning and obsessive track-covering. A lot of work. In this case though, secrets were kept by accident and then mostly forgotten. But their power was therefore no less portentous.from page 124 in the chapter called ‘Rival Neighbor Princess’
When the secret is going to be told:
…And so she missed it, his warning, his fledgling teenage foresight that secrets are miserable things, that secrets, be they deliberate or accidental, will out, and then it won’t matter where you live, for no place anywhere can protect you from the power and the fallout of a secret once exploded.from page 140 and 141 of the chapter called ‘Everyone Who?’
When Rosie and Penn are discussing whether to put Poppy on hormone blockers, Rosie argues:
“…All teenagers feel betrayed by their bodies when they go through puberty. You think Poppy would be the only woman to hate the way she looks? All women hate the way they look. Her body may not be immutable, but it’s not like changing the water filter. The drugs, other drugs, yet more drugs, a lifetime of drugs, the surgeries, the stuff that can’t be made whole regardless of surgery, these things are huge. These things are scary. These things are mysteries, unpredictable, uncertain. There are strange effects, side effects, unintended effects. There are hard decisions that can never be unmade. There are hard decisions she’s not old enough to make. There are decisions that just shouldn’t be made for you by your parents. If she is a girl, if deep inside this is her truth, if she needs this, if she wants this, if she must, if she’s sure, then yes, of course yes, thank God yes, we will support her and help her and do all we can and much we can’t yet but will have to figure out, as we have already, as we do for all our children. But easier? It would be easier for her to be a boy. So if she’s questioning, if she’s on the fence, this is information she should have.from page 206 in the chapter called ‘Hedge Enemies’
When the secret gets out, the boys come into Mom and Dad’s bedroom during the night one after the other to admit they told someone that Poppy was really a boy:
Parenting in the dark was something Rosie remembered from when they were babies. It was all so much harder in the middle of the night. In the dark, you couldn’t see them clearly, the pallor of their skin, the brightness of their eyes. When they cried during the day, she could tell from another room if the hurt was physical or emotional, to be attended or ignored. But after midnight, all cries were cries of terror, all augured alarm. Were they warm from fever or from sleep? Confused by nightmare or premonition? Might there actually be someone hiding in the closet? You couldn’t treat patients in the dark of course, but Rosie had always imagined ERs were so well lit because during the day, fear stayed at bay and sensible perspective reigned. In the dark, only the horror stories rang true.from page 216 of chapter called ‘Parenting in the Dark’
This is the funny part when Roo comes in and confesses to telling the secret right after Ben came in:
But before either Penn or Rosie could sort the shadows and decide what to do about Ben and Cayenne, it got more complicated. Ben was not the only one. They came in the middle of the night, in the dark, one after another, like dreams.
“I said it to Derek McGuinness one time while I was kicking his ass.” Roo was distraught enough not to notice Ben in the dark already in his parents’ bedroom. “I didn’t think he was paying attention, but I guess he was. I didn’t think he’d know what I was talking about, but I guess he did. While I was punching him in the head I was also saying, ‘That’s. My. Sister. You’re. Talking. About. Asshole.'”
“Don’t say ‘ass,’ Roo.” There were so many things to object to here, Penn defaulted back to the one that was familiar.
“‘That’s my sister you’re talking about, Hole,'” Roo amended, and then added miserably, “It was a crime of passion.”from page 217 of chapter called ‘Parenting in the Dark’
When the woman, “K”, in Thailand, who is the Medic, the Mechanic, the Social Worker, the tireless godsend, reveals that she is actually transgender (or kathoey in Thai), like Polly/Claude:
“Not like for Pollyclaude I think. In Thailand, lots kathoey. Not so big deal. We all Buddhist. Is karma. Is life. Is just another way to be.”from page 289 in chapter called ‘Under Pants’
When Claude discovers that the ubiquitous Buddha looks like a girl:
Claude’s little students had tried to explain all about the Buddha who was Lord but not God, a prince, a teacher, a reminder, and a path, but what Claude liked about him was he looked like a girl.from page 292 in chapter called ‘The Color of Monday’
Dispelling fear. Taming what was scary not by hiding it, not by blocking it or burying it, not by keeping it secret, but by reminding themselves, and everyone else, to choose love, choose openness, to think and be calm.
From near the end of the book when Penn’s fairy tale Grumwald is told by the witch to not keep secrets – to tell his secret:
…”When you’re alone keeping secrets, you get fear. When you tell, you get magic. Twice.”
“You find out you’re not alone. And so does everyone else, that’s how everything gets better. You share your secret, and I’ll do the rest. You share your secret, and you change the world.”from page 312 in chapter called ‘Ever’
In the end, we are not sure what Poppy/Claude decides to do but they return to Seattle and she is being a girl, and her old friends accept her and lover her, and they are happy. Laurie Frankel wrote from experience – her little boy is now a little girl, she writes in the Author’s Note at the end. Great book – great characters! Glad I read it!