What does it mean to be human? I think that is the question that Kathleen Winter is posing in her novel Annabel. Set in Labrador in 1968, Annabel is the story of a child who is born both male and female. The father, Treadway, decides to raise the child as a boy and so the mother Jacinta, takes the child to the hospital for an operation that will close off the female part of the child so that he will henceforth, be known as Wayne.
As Wayne grows up his parents keep the truth of his birth from him. In the meantime, Treadway sets out to teach him the skills of a man. But there is always a part of Wayne that senses something more about himself. What follows is a difficult journey for a family that struggles with the reality of their situation of how Wayne can live a “normal” life. But what does it mean to be normal? That is another question we must consider as we read this compassionate telling of a difficult situation.
This book seems to pose a lot of questions so rather than give away any more of the story I’d like to approach this reflection from the point of view of the questions it poses for me as a reader.
As a writer of historical fiction I know how hard it is to gather information to give the story verisimilitude. Therefore, I can’t help wondering how Kathleen Winter was able to gather information about what a person would go through who was both male and female. She has certainly captured the emotions of all parties involved in the story.
One reader of this book has said that they found it offensive when Ms. Winter allowed Wayne to explore his female side. But I feel that it is a natural evolution for him to want to discover his whole self. But I do wonder what will happen with his relationship with his friend Wally (an interestingly ambiguous name for a girl). Does he love Wally as a man loves a woman, or as a woman who loves another woman? And why does it have to be one or the other?
In the prologue of this book the question is posed, “Why would any caribou leave her herd to walk solitary for thousands of miles? The herd is comfort?” (p.1) the response, “The only reason any of us would become one, and not part of the herd is if she were lost.” (p.2) I think this is a clue about the journey Wayne must make.
But what I didn’t quite understand was the significance of why Wayne’s shadow self was named after Thomasina’s (the only other person who knows Wayne’s secret) deceased daughter Annabel, and how did her name become the title of the book? It certainly must mean something because a writer doesn’t do things without reason. If anyone out there can enlighten me, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As you can see this book poses many questions, not just for a book club to discuss over tea and cookies, but in particular, the important questions about what it means to be human, what is considered “normal,” and who gets to decide? I hope that by reading this book, it open not only your mind, but also your heart, to all of our differences.