Losing her vision causes young Mafalda to lose friends, certain freedoms, and the stars in the sky. Even so, the darkness brings into sharp focus her unyielding resilience and creativity.
Peretti, Paola. The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree. Trans. Denise Muir. Illus. Carolina Rabei. New York: Anthem Books for Young Readers, 2018. Print.
Genre: middle grade novel
The wind bowed my tent. It hummed the tiedowns and snapped all the rainfly flaps. I readjusted my headlamp, snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and continued reading Peretti’s excellent novel.
Fall may have been trouncing across the nighttime desert outside the tent, but inside I was in a far greater tumult than cosmic seasonal shifts. To heck with the Earth’s transit around the sun! This book had me realizing just how sharply my trajectory in life had been altered only days ago following a deep betrayal perpetrated by two dear friends. Reading about 10-year-old Mafalda’s descent into blindness was helping me to realize just how blind I had been. And willingly so. I looked the other way for a long time. I chose my blind spots.
This kind of drama within one’s social circles wasn’t supposed to happen in adulthood, was it? I thought I was immune now that I was approaching 41. Realizing I wasn’t immune, I added Peretti’s novel to the camping gear loaded in my car and shot off for some healing desert solitude.
Much like a good scientist, Mafalda tracks the genetic condition robbing her of sight by measuring how far she needs to be from a beloved cherry tree in order to see it. 60 feet. 40 feet. 3 feet.
Whereas most middle grade novels in the U.S. lean heavily on third person limited point of view, Peretti opts for first person. That the book is largely based on her own experience losing her vision may have influenced Peretti’s voice choice. And writing for an Italian audience may have also freed the author from the U.S. market’s expectations of “what will sell.” Either way, the point of view works well. Never does this middle grade tone slip into young adult introspection or angst.
Indeed, the limits on Mafalda’s “I” perspective rather compliments the increasing limits of her vision. Perhaps this overlap in point of view and plot contributes to the resonance readers feel for Mafalda’s defeats and victories. When Mafalda’s best friend finds blindness just too embarrassing to associate with, we resent earnestly the injustice of friendship revoked. Likewise, when the obnoxious soccer-obsessed boy down the street takes an interest in Mafalda, we squeal with ardent love-crush delight.
In fact, this novel shines brightest during these moments of adolescent first-love. The thrill of being close to someone who is not in your family…that spark which flashes when a stranger actually comprehends you, and defends you, and gives you a gift, or shines a light from a nighttime window–flashing a secret message just for you…. Peretti has clearly never forgotten the power of these precious secrets.
I love those times when we come to read a book that we were absolutely meant to read. Even better is when we read it at the precise moment we need it most. That was true for me staying up all night in my wind-walloped tent to read The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree. Reading this novel invited me to recognize that although I may have eyes, I don’t always use them as well as I could. Had I chosen to ignore aspects of two friendships that were not healthy? Yes. Did I see ways to forge better, healthier friendships in the future? Definitely. I was looking with fresh eyes at my own cherry tree; my own guiding compass.
Reading this novel begs us all to ponder just how much we underestimate our vision when it comes to seeing the world and seeing ourselves. If you lost your vision tomorrow, what would you miss seeing? What or whom would you wish you’d spent more time observing? What details would you mourn when they faded from memory? What did you look away from or ignore that maybe deserved your careful attention? And, when confronted with darkness, what might you finally see as your inner truth?