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Bookworm: 'Normal' is above average; Medieval body works

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
“Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey” authors Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman.

“Normal: A Mother and Her Beautiful Son”

  • By Magda Newman
  • c. 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • $25, $35 Canada, 272 pages

“Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey”

  • By Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman
  • c.2019, HMH Books for Young Readers
  • $16.99, higher in Canada; 336 pages

You’re a pretty average kid. You go to school, make friends, watch TV and goof around. You have music you like, foods you crave, classes you love, classes you hate, teachers you click with, and those you don’t. Sure, you’re special, but you’re a lot like other kids, too. Until, as in the new book “Normal” by Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman, you’re not.

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Like most mothers-to-be, Magdalena Newman was excited to meet her first baby. Her pregnancy had progressed normally, everything was fine, and she had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary, but there was a problem: Nathaniel was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, which affected his breathing, chewing, hearing, and which made his face appear droopy.

“Normal: A Mother and Her Beautiful Son” by Magda Newman.

Growing up, none of that bothered Nathaniel. He just did what other kids do: he played with his dogs, went to school, and made friends. Yes, he had a “trach,” (rhymes with drake) that helped him breathe. Yes, he was fed through a tube in his stomach, no big deal. He says, “… it was … all I’d ever known. It felt normal to me.”

But Nathaniel’s mother worried. What if his trach got wet? What if he accidentally got hurt on the playground? What if his hearing aid was broken? There were a thousand concerns, but Nathaniel continued to grow just fine, though he often needed help taking care of himself. Shrug.

And then, a doctor said he thought he might be able to help.

“Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey” by Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman.

Nathaniel was eleven years old then, but it was up to him to have the surgery or not. It would take a year to see if it would work, and he’d have to wear a “cage” around his head for months, but it would give him a chance to live like every other kid.

“Awesome!” he told the doctor. “Let’s do it!”

As far as books go, there are a lot of abnormalities about “Normal.”

For starters, “Normal” is not just one book, it’s two: one for kids, and another for adults. Authors Magdalena (Magda) Newman and Nathaniel Newman contributed to both versions, and the tale they tell is one of love, risk-taking, and bravery, although Nathaniel denies it.

And that’s what you can expect from his portion of these books: he tells his story by asking for nothing but that readers believe him when he says there’s no reason for him to complain or pity-party, that it’s really no big deal. Young readers and fans of the novel “Wonder” will appreciate a lack of candy-coating in this tale but, of course, they’ll see through that nonchalance.

Magda Newman, however, writes a slightly different, more detailed story, through memories of her childhood in Poland and a soft-pawed Mama-Bear angle to this tale of parenting a “different” child. Adult readers may see a bit of melodrama on that note, but it’s quite forgivable.

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“Normal,” then, is a good book for a 10-to-14-year-old, and its adult version is good for that kid’s parents. Look for both, share, discuss. As a dual-memoir, it’s above average.

“Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages”

  • By Jack Hartnell
  • c. 2018, W.W. Norton
  • $29.95, $39.95 Canada; 346 pages

Your poor old bones have just about had it. Every day brings another ache. Every sun’s ray and snowflake feel like an assault. You aren’t getting any younger and your poor old bones know that well. What’s worse, as you’ll see in the new book “Medieval Bodies” by Jack Hartnell, your poor old ancestor’s poor old bones might have had it better than yours.

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Think of what it must’ve been like to live during Medieval times, and you might very well wrinkle your nose. Weren’t Medieval people uneducated, dirty, stinky louts with bad teeth and body odor? You might believe that. And you’d be wrong.

“Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages” by Jack Hartnell.

Says Hartnell, there are really three parts to the Medieval Ages: It started at the end of the Roman Empire, and then it split into Byzantium, “western and central Europe,” and into the Arabian Desert with the Muslims. Though each of these highly-different cultures saw things dissimilarly, they all knew a surprising lot about how the human body works.

They had a basic concept of the dangers of bad bacteria, for instance, and a rudimentary idea of how food was digested, and injuries could be healed. They knew that the brain was the holder of memory and thought and they were aware of nerves in the head. Because sugar was dear and vegetables cheap, they probably ate better than you do.

And yet, they were off quite a bit on other medical beliefs. Medieval physicians were sure that “humors” governed the body and that small hairs on the skin were formed by evaporated humors. On that, skin was a way to hold one’s innards in and Medieval physicians were truly loathing to cut through it – although there is on record a gruesome tale of experimentation on a scamp destined to hang.

“Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages” by Jack Hartnell.

As for the heart, it was obviously important but more as a “governing force of the soul.” The heart, they believed was “a proxy originator of action and understanding,” and that included love …

Give “Medieval Bodies” a quick page-through, and you might think it’s too scholarly to be a fun read. It’s filled with reproductions of medieval art and tapestries and stories that nudge the high schooler in you, the one who snoozed in History class.

Look again. Author Jack Hartnell indeed tells a story that’s somewhat on the dry side, but between dates and names peeks sneaky humor that’ll catch you by surprise. There are copious accounts of work done by early physicians and scientists, but they’re told with a sense of promise that a snicker is on its way. Hartnell shows that what happened 14- or 15-hundred years ago was important and, in many ways, it laid a foundation for the knowledge that came after it … but he also seems to recognize that sometimes, it was pretty silly, too.

Absolutely, “Medieval Bodies” is perfect for historians and medical sorts, but it should also appeal to the curious, and to anyone who wants something truly different. Look for this book.

Your poor old bones just might have to have it.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.