A review of Heidi Heilig’s “The Long Road” in Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Heidi Heilig’s “The Long Road” begins like many trope-filled stories about disability does – with a self-loathing disabled character seeking a cure. The trope of “the cure” and especially “the magic cure” is built into a large number of fantasy stories, creating a quest for characters around the discovery of a cure, or having characters use magic to transform their bodies into normate bodies.
The difference with Heilig’s narrative, is that although her disabled narrator begins a long quest with her family wearing protective amulets to ward off evil (since her disability is seen as a marker of evil) toward Persia where her family believes there will be a cure… Heilig switches the narrative, breaking from the typical fantasy “magical cure” trope and instead allowing her character to gradually realize that the notion of “the cure” is a problematic one that causes her to view her body as a problem to be “fixed” and instead starts to question the idea of normalcy, realizing that bodies are far more complex than her family had led her to believe. It is only through finding a disabled community and companionship with another disabled person that Heilig’s protagonist is able to begin to re-assess everything she has taken for granted as “truth” for so long.
Heilig reminds her readers that we frequently find knowledge and new ideas within our own disabled community and that we construct our own community as we find other people like ourselves who don’t make us feel like outsiders or exiles. Heilig makes the exile literal by having her characters wander the desert in search of a cure, believing that they can return home “normal”, but although her character searches for normalcy (which is so often the fantasy quest attributed to disabled characters), instead she finds the power of community and challenging her assumptions. Rather than a physical transformation, Heilig presents her readers with a transformation in thought and perspective, an awakening to new possibilities for disabled existence rather than the erasure of disability.
To find out more about Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374306502
To discover more about Heidi Heilig, visit http://www.heidiheilig.com