I’m going to take a little detour here, since this book is related to something Tor.com will be running in a bit. Luckily, this is a fun little detour: Willo Davis Roberts’s The Girl With the Silver Eyes.
Written in the 1970s, when fears about genetic mutation were on the rise (you might have read a comic or two about this), The Girl With the Silver Eyes tells the story of ten year old Katie Welker, a girl with—natch, silver eyes. No, not grey, but silver. She has never seen any other eyes like hers; they immediately set her apart and mark her as different. And she also has a few paranormal powers, which, along with her eyes, have kept her from making friends and made her an object of fear in her community.
Katie’s parents are divorced; her mother, we are told, cannot care for her, so Katie moved in with her father and grandmother, only to have her father, too, soon leave for work opportunities. The strong implication here is that the parents are not so much workaholics as uncomfortable with their child; certainly Katie’s grandmother, and primary caregiver, often is. Nonetheless, Monica does take her daughter back when Katie’s grandmother dies, forcing Katie to move back in with a mother she barely knows.
Monica cannot, however, give up her job, choosing instead to hire a couple of incompetent babysitters (handled entertainingly from Katie’s disgusted point of view) until agreeing to have a more sympathetic neighbor, Mrs. Michaelmas, keep an eye on her daughter. (Katie, like most ten year olds, is under the firm belief that she doesn’t need a sitter at all.)
Fortunately enough, Katie likes to read—and to think.
And equally fortunately, she has time to think about her powers—and, after a comment from her mother’s boyfriend, the ability to wonder if she really is alone.
The draw of the book for most readers, I suspect, is Katie’s paranormal powers, gained from her mother’s exposure to a toxic drug during pregnancy. Not that these powers are all that strong. She can move small objects with her mind, and she can talk to cats. (And in typical kid fashion is more apt to do both when she’s bored.) Just enough to set her apart from others; not enough to be really useful. And just enough to cause adults to start giving her suspicious looks, and start blaming her for many things she hasn’t done—including, Katie learns, suspecting her of harming, even killing, her grandmother.
But woven into this are many other things, including an unflinching look at single working mothers. Monica Welker frankly admits that financial problems—she and her husband were continually short of money, although both of them worked—destroyed her marriage. And financial problems also are what forced Monica to take a job at a pharmaceutical company, exposing herself to a dangerous drug.
That exposure to chemicals could cause birth defects was widely known in the late 1960s, when Monica got pregnant, but it’s clear from the text that Monica had little choice: this job was the first decent paying job she’d been able to obtain, her one chance to save her marriage and avoid homelessness. It fails in both respects (the company eliminated the jobs after realizing how toxic the drug is) but she did try. And as she says to Katie wistfully later, after admitting that she has to all intents and purposes abandoned her child to her former mother-in-law, “I did miss you, Katie.”
Not surprisingly, Katie and Monica have a tense relationship, based on resentment on Katie’s part, and frustration and lack of understanding on Monica’s. And they are not the only family with silver eyed children facing severe stress: two of the other families fight constantly, in part over their silver eyed children. This, too, is an unflinching and important look at the stress children with birth defects can cause for their families. As Roberts makes clear, these children are bright enough to understand that, but not willing to take the blame for it.
Interestingly enough, none of the parents mention suing the pharmaceutical company that turned their children’s eyes silver, made them unable to cry, and gave them paranormal powers. I suppose a jury might find that the benefits of the paranormal powers outweighed the negatives, but given that at least three of the four families appear to be under severe stress thanks to their children (one is divorced; two fight constantly) and given the children’s isolation, some case could probably be made. Maybe that happened after the end of the book.
Other delightful points: Katie’s love of reading—she’s the proper sort of kid that pays more attention to books than to what adults mistakenly consider important (like, you know, doing dishes and cleaning and cooking); discovering a character in the book who, like me, could completely fail to hear someone calling her name and the passage of time was marvelous. Nathan, Monica’s boyfriend, clearly inept with kids, but trying, and the way Monica admits that Katie that although she likes him, she doubts they’ll get married. The way that Nathan is able to draw a quick and obvious conclusion, giving Katie the clues she needs to take the next steps. The way Roberts uses Katie’s eavesdropping (approved of here) and memories to provide some necessary infodumping, woven seamlessly into the narrative. The way despite getting outcast by her peers and many surrounding adults, Katie retains a confidence in her own judgment—and a realistic sense of her own abilities.
And best of all, the way Katie finds her own solutions and saves herself. She learns how to make friends; she does her research, and she heads out on her own. Certainly, she gets some help on the way, and, like all of us, she draws some incorrect solutions and makes some mistakes. But for the most part, this is a book where brains triumph, in more than one way,
As far as I know, Roberts never wrote a sequel, which when I was a kid was a major disappointment—I wanted to know what happened to the silver eyed children after this. But reading it now, I realize that I really don’t need to know what happened next. Not just because a super-powered Katie might feel less interesting (the book more than hints that specialized training is in Katie’s future) but because the book is complete and satisfying as it is.
The other books I’ve found by Roberts weren’t science fiction, and they weren’t as much fun. And they are mostly out of print. But if you can track this one down, it’s worth it: a fun, fast little read…and much more optimistic about mutations than some upcoming books featuring mutated children, coming up later.
Mari Ness has tried very hard to summon chocolate, or at least move it from the kitchen to her chair, with her mind, but so far regretfully admits that her efforts have failed. She lives in central Florida.