Novel Explores How Young Runaways Overcome Language Barrier
How important is verbal communication between strangers? Can two people bond using only non-verbal cues?
Author Maria Boynton explores this theme in her novel, Ruthlessly Aadi, a Read With Me book selection for this summer.
The story is about a 15-year-old girl named Aadi Benoit who flees an abusive mother in Chicago and heads west across northern Illinois. Along the way she meets an 8-year-old boy named Angel Sanchez who was orphaned, abused and abandoned.
Angel speaks only Spanish. Aadi only knows English. But the two bond immediately, with Aadi quickly assuming the parental role.
Boynton says this language gap allowed her to examine interpersonal communication more closely.
"I was looking to explore the idea of connectivity between two people who lack the ability to understand each other," Boynton says, adding that tone, volume and body language convey plenty of information. "As someone with a hearing loss, I rely on nonverbal communication much more than most people have to," she says.
Throughout her story, Boynton adds Angel's thoughts in italicized English, which is even more helpful for the reader when the antagonist -- Rachel Westerbeck -- appears. Rachel recently stopped taking medication for schizophrenia. She first notices Aadi and Angel as she is driving to check on her parents' home in DeKalb while the parents are in Florida. Guessing Aadi and Angel are runaways, Rachel leaves the front door to the home unlocked and returns to her apartment.
As she expected, Aadi and Angel enter the home filled with overstuffed furniture. Angel collapses into a recliner and falls asleep. Aadi heads to the kitchen:
She had never seen as many boxes of macaroni and cheese outside of a grocery store as there were in this pantry. She counted. There were twenty-six boxes. Whoever lived here not only liked to sit comfortably, but also enjoyed eating comfortably as well. Uncooked boxes of macaroni and cheese wouldn't do them any good on the road, but they weren't on the road tonight. She excitedly pulled out four boxes and started digging around in the ancient cupboards for pots and pans. Tonight, they would feast!
The next morning, Rachel walks in and calls upstairs for them. A standoff ensues, in which Rachel communicates in English with Aadi and in Spanish with Angel. Aadi, feeling isolated, demands that Rachel stop talking to Angel. In a calculated retreat, Rachel offers to make breakfast and invites them to stay awhile. Soon, Angel visits the bathroom, leaving Aadi and Rachel alone:
"I'm going to tell him that he can stay you know," Rachel said, "even if you decide to take off." "Who said I was going to take off?" Aadi asked as she shot Rachel a contemptuous look. "I just wanted you to know that he can stay, with or without you," Rachel continued. "He's an eight-year-old boy, Rachel," Aadi replied. "I don't think it's quite time for him to start making important choices about where his life is headed." "He might be eight," Rachel said, "but he's already had to make more difficult choices than most thirty-year-olds I know."
Aadi realizes that Rachel, after just a few minutes, knows more about Angel than Aadi was able to glean after spending one day with him.
Score one for verbal communication.
Boynton says Rachel has her own agenda regarding Angel. "Rachel is suffering from a variety of mental illnesses," she says, "and, as a result of her not taking the proper medications, she has a kind of magical realism. In her mind, she doesn't quite fit into this life that she's leading."
Rachel's hallucinations recently returned, causing her to doubt that Aadi and Angel are real. After concluding they are, she decides to drive a wedge between them. "Rachel determines that Angel is her salvation," Boynton says. "She becomes convinced that he is meant to solve the problem of her not fitting in to her own life."
Boynton started writing the book during National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which takes place every November. The goal is to write a 50,000- word novel in thirty days. "I started to panic on the first day," Boynton says, "because if you don't write sixteen hundred words per day, you can't meet your goal."
Boynton says she found inspiration in a lapis lazuli stone she wears every day. "In order for it to be the beautiful thing I wear around my neck, it first had to be worn away."
In the opening chapter, the author describes the centuries-long process of water eroding stone, and uses this as a metaphor for the challenges Aadi and Angel endured before they met. "Aadi's mother was neglectful," Boynton says. "I'm not excusing it, but she struggled with addiction, and Aadi is in the way so she decides to leave."
The author says she recognizes that many survivors of abuse or neglect mimic this behavior as adults, because that's all they know. "But it has been my experience," she says, "that a good portion of those people become some of the most caring, some of the most attentive people. So that's where Aadi comes from."
When Aadi encounters Angel, right after he's abandoned, she immediately wants to care for him. "He definitely has been worn away, but he recognizes that Aadi has true compassion," the author says. "He has every right to be angry and mean, and instead he's joyful and accepts whatever love Aadi is willing to give him."
The love shared by Aadi and Angel may seem at odds with the word "Ruthlessly" in the book's title. Boynton elaborates a little further:
"The dictionary definition of ruthless is having no pity or compassion," she says. "The main character of my book has two significantly influential people in her life that are ruthless, but for vastly different reasons. I don't want to give away too much, but it is also a play on words: What it means to be ruthless is redefined by Aadi. Since a lack of clarity in linguistic communication is a central theme in this book, I thought reshaping meanings played nicely into the overall theme."
Maria Boynton is a former WNIJ staff member. Ruthlessly Aadi is her first novel.
Tomorrow, our Read With Me series continues with On This Day In Poetry History, the latest collection of poems by Amy Newman. Listen during Morning Edition, after our Perspective, at 6:52 and 8:52. Then come back here for an author reading and more information.