Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber

Posted by on Dec 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

Free as a BirdSummary: Born in 1957 with Downs Syndrome, Ruby Jean Sharp is put in an institution called the Woodlands School at the age of eight when her Gramma dies and can no longer care for her. The stigma against Ruby Jean’s condition is great, and those in the institution are often abused. But hope comes when Ruby Jean starts taking lessons on daily life activities with a helper named Grace, demonstrating that though others call her a retard she is capable of running her own life with some support. Finally she emerges from the Woodlands School to live with a friendly, caring older couple called Nan and Pop, but when an ambulance takes Pop away one day Ruby Jean assumes the worst. Determined not to go back to the Woodlands School again, she becomes homeless, learning about life on the street by experience but still finding a way to make friends as she always does.

Number of Pages: 168

Age Range: 14-16

Review: Ruby Jean’s story is not an easy one to read. While nowadays in some countries, programs that were new in the 60s and the 70s for people with Downs Syndrome seem like common sense, author Gina McMurchy-Barber gives her reader a glimpse back to when they weren’t. And the glimpse is utterly disturbing.

But Ruby Jean lives though it. She deals with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and as time passes in the Woodlands School she loses her words and any independence and autonomy she had while living with her Gramma. Living in the institution deprives Ruby Jean of her most basic need: love.

When Grace comes into her life, seeking to teach her how to live in a community setting, Ruby Jean blossoms like a flower under her tutelage. Others at the Woodlands School mistake Ruby Jean for a weed though and seem determined to cut her back at all costs. Grace is fired, and Ruby Jean descends into her wordless state once again, devolving with self-destructive behaviours as the only way to express her intense distress over her situation.

Hope comes again though in the form of Mrs. Gentry, who works with Ruby Jean until she is able to leave the Woodlands School to live with Pop and Nan, a kind-hearted elderly couple. It’s a beautiful life with them, and Ruby Jean is the happiest she has ever been with a job and people who love her until one day Pop is taken away in an ambulance. Ruby Jean knows from previous experience that ambulances only take away dead people, and fearful of being returned to Woodlands School by Nan, she runs away, living on the street.

The ending was a surprise to me, although I was thankful for it. Despite everything that happens to her Ruby Jean picks herself up time and time again, and no matter what her circumstances she continually finds people to love and who love her in return. First it was her Gramma, then Grace, then Mrs. Gentry, her friends at Woodlands School, Nan and Pop, Sister Irene, Mabel – Ruby Jean may have been beaten down on many occasions, but she continues to love. And when she loves, she’s all in.

With the historical aspect and the abuse, I’d place it as a mid-teen read.

Memorable Quotes:

“Some people figured Woodlands School was the place the prime minister king man hid all of God’s mistakes so others dint have to look at em. Maybe that’s true. But I think us kids wasn’t the only ones who was broken in that place – nope, some of em uniforms was awful broke too. I could tell cause they dint never look happy … dint smile … dint talk nice – not even to each other. Wondered if that’s cause they dint like being in Woodland neither. Spose that’s why it was a good thing they had families an places to go home to every night.” – Ruby Jean from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 24

“An I figured out Jimmy T was never really Mister Crow knowed he had to be patient to get what he wanted. He knowed sometimes ya jus hadda lie low an wait for that chance when em other ones wasn’t lookin. Maybe if Jimmy T had been like that he’da got what he wanted one day – an jus like Crow, he could’ve flied away free as a bird.” – Ruby Jean from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 35

“I waited to hear Morris and Millie in my head sayin, ‘That’s right, she’s nothing but a retard.’ But that dint happen. Instead it was Gramma’s voice.


She told me, ‘Ruby Jean Sharp, it’s time you stopped feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn’t matter what others think of you or if they call you names or if they don’t know how precious you are – you’ll just have to know it all by yourself. And anyway, there are plenty of people who see your true worth – like Grace and Nan and Pops and Mrs. Gentry … and Mabel too. But right now she needs your help. You’re the only one who can do it, Ruby Jean.'” – Ruby Jean triumphing over her inner demons with the love of her Gramma from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 139

“‘A long time ago, before I was sent to Riverview, I used to have a job sorting letters for the post office. Most letters fit into the slots just fine – that’s because they were all the same size. But every so often one came along that was too long or too wide and had to be put in the oversize drawer. For a letter sorter that was a nuisance – created more work, more effort.’


I thought bout how nice it was that Mabel used to have a job at the post office.


‘What I’m trying to say is I figure you and me are kind of like those oversize letters. We didn’t fit into any of the usual places – we weren’t like the others – so some people thought we had to be put somewhere separate. With you it was Woodlands. With me it was Riverview. But we got lucky – we got away. And just like you, I ain’t never going back. That’s why I chose the streets … it’s where I want to be. So don’t worry about me, kid. I’m a survivor.’ Then Mabel smiled at me. ‘Doesn’t mean I’d say no to a little money now and then.'” – Mabel explaining their differentness to Ruby Jean from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 152-153

Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber is published by Dundurn Press, (2010).

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