When I wrote about Coenred and Mildryth I was reminded of another couple who had taken centre stage in one of my other novels; Grace Fielding and Thomas Morrow. They appear in Eugenica. They have no romantic attachment to one another, partly because they are quite young, and partly because they are thrown together by a series of terrible events rather than mutual attraction. Despite the lack of a romantic angle theirs is a relationship just as strong, just as brave, and just as necessary as Coenred and Mildryth’s.
I began with a very clear idea of who Grace was. Her name was inspired by her physical appearance, being a young girl who lacked both an arm and a leg. Certainly, she could not move with grace and, having lived most of her life in an orphanage, she did not dress with grace, but then I was using the word in the sense of dignity. Grace is a person who possesses an unconscious degree of this quality. Life has been hard on her. She has grown up unloved and unwanted. It seems to her that everyone she meets wishes her either harm or wants to just ignore her. She has no reason to see any good in anyone that she meets. Indeed, Grace is totally unaware of her capacity to feel any kind of empathy towards anyone else; until she meets Tom that is.
This was an important theme within Eugenica. In popular culture the disabled are often portrayed as either meek martyrs or bitter and twisted; what I call the Tiny Tim or King Richard III syndrome. It would me more likely for Grace to become the latter, but that is not my experience as a disabled person. I have had plenty of horrible experiences and met many disagreeable people, but I have never made the mistake of believing the worst of everyone that I meet. I did not want Grace to make that mistake either. Indeed, I wanted her to challenge the stereotype of being either a meek martyr or bitter and twisted. The truth is that for those of us born disabled then this is all we ever know. Grace is not a disabled heroine, like me she is a person who also has a disability. That is what I wanted her to portray. Within the structure of the book it was necessary that Grace form a relationship with another character who was, to some degree at least, the antithesis of herself and that was to be Tom.
Thomas Morrow came about because I remembered seeing a documentary concerning a young man called Ben Underwood. He was remarkable because although blind he could see with sound. He used a form of echolocation. I first saw Ben on television and, like so many others, was amazed by his ability. Human echolocation has now been studied and ratified by scientists. Indeed, Ben was not alone, Daniel Kish is another blind person who can see using sound; he is so good at it that he can ride a bicycle. Tom was inspired by Ben and, I think unconsciously, I decided that he should be black as well. Perhaps it was just a kind of acknowledgement to Ben who died in 2009. Of course, having a young black boy in the 1930’s also allowed for racism to appear as an element in the book.
Whereas Grace had been abandoned, Tom had his mother who loves him very much. His father died while he was an infant and although his mother’s family considered his mixed parentage something of a stain on their reputation he was not subjected to much ill-treatment. He has excellent manners, is intelligent, and something of an optimist. His echolocation is self-taught, just like Bend Underwood’s was, but he keeps it secret. Grace is the first person to guess that he is not totally unsighted, and this forms the basis of their initial friendship.
Grace and Tom have a very different approach to life. She has acquired a remarkable degree of self-discipline through her painful experiences. Grace is wrapped in a form of armour to protect her from the verbal and physical attacks of others. It is not that she does not feel the pain, it is just that she has become adept at not showing it. Unfortunately, this also means that she is not very good at displaying any other emotion either. From her point of view, she has a very pragmatic opinion of life; it is mostly going to hurt and disappoint you. In consequence, she establishes a very low degree of expectation. However, she is not totally without some optimism. Her one indulgence is movies. Although she has never seen a film at the cinema Grace has read numerous film magazines after they were abandoned by staff members at the orphanage, through them she discovers a world of dreams where people are often beautiful and heroic. This optimism gives her character room to grow.
Tom also grows as the book develops. Although his life is far from perfect, he becomes aware that what he had was a significant improvement over what Grace experienced. At fifteen he was looking forward to a future, possibly in music as he enjoys perfect pitch. He is good at mathematics and English Language. Before being forced by the Ministry of Social Biology (MoSB) into the Spring Bank Facility, Tom has little reason to be apprehensive about life.
Although they may seem to be different to each other Grace and Tom have some very important traits in common. Faced by danger they both discover that they can be brave and resourceful. Their enemies see only two disabled kids and, like people I have known, presume that a physical disability invariably results in a mental impairment as well. One more than one occasion they are underestimated simply because they are judged to be far less capable than they really are.
There are several points in Eugenica when either Grace or Tom could have voluntarily separated themselves, one from the other, but they do not. In one scene Tom even questions why he does not do that very thing. The answer is more than an acknowledgement of loyalty, it is a realisation that in a hostile world where the likes of them are being not only actively persecuted but also disparaged and represented as less than human, they only have each other. Yes, they need each other to help deal with the situations that they find themselves in, but they also need each other because no one else has neither their perspective nor their experience of life. They can relate to each other on a level that an able-bodied person cannot even conceive of. Shared experiences can create powerful bonds, especially when those experiences are limited to such a small number of people.
Tom teaches Grace that life can better than what she has so far experienced and that not all people are out to cheat or hurt you. Grace teaches Tom that from within himself he can find the strength and courage to overcome even the most formidable of enemies and dangers. They compliment each other very much, as a genuine couple should do.
Eugenica is available from here: Link