Stuck in Neutral

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Overview

Shawn McDaniel is an enigma and a miracle—except no one knows it, least of all his father. His life is not what it may seem to anyone looking at him. Not even those who love him best have any idea what he is truly like. In this extraordinary and powerful first novel, the reader learns to look beyond the obvious and finds a character whose spirit is rich beyond imagining and whose story is unforgettable.

My life is like one of those "good news-bad news" jokes. Like, "I've got some good news and some bad news—which do you want first?"

I could go on about my good news for hours, but you probably want to hear the punch line, my bad news, right? Well, there isn't that much, really, but what's here is pretty wild. First off, my parents got divorced ten years ago because of me. My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn't divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul—he divorced me. He couldn't handle my condition, so he had to leave. My condition? Well, that brings us to the guts of my bad news.

Books for the Teen Age 2001 (NYPL), Books for Youth Editor's Choice 2000 (Booklist), Top 10 Youth First Novels 2000(Booklist), 2001 Best Books for Young Adults (ALA), 2001 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers (ALA), and 2001 Michael L. Printz Honor Book

Fourteen-year-old Shawn McDaniel, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy and cannot function, relates his perceptions of his life, his family, and his condition, especially as he believes his father is planning to kill him.

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Editorial Reviews

Horn Book
The invention of Shawn is compelling, evoking one of our darkest fears and deepest hopes — that a fully conscious and intelligent being may be hidden within such a broken body, as yet unable to declare his existence.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First-time novelist Trueman raises ethical issues about euthanasia through the relationship between 14-year-old Shawn McDaniel, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and his father. In a conversational tone, narrator Shawn explains that when he was born, a tiny blood vessel burst in his brain, leaving him unable to control any of his muscles. What no one knows is that Shawn is a "secret genius" who, while unable to communicate, remembers everything he has ever heard. His condition, which includes violent seizures, overwhelmed his father, who moved out when Shawn was three years old; the man later won a Pulitzer Prize for a poem based on his experiences as parent to a victim of C.P. Weaving together memories with present-day accounts, Shawn describes the highs and lows of his day-to-day life as well as his father's increasing fascination with euthanasia and evidence that the man is working up the courage to personally "end [Shawn's] pain." The strength of the novel lies in the father-son dynamic; the delicate scenes between them carefully illustrate their mutual quest to understand each other. The other characters (Shawn's brother and sister, mother, teachers) lack this complexity. As a result, many of the scenes feel more contrived than heartfelt ("I always feel so guilty complaining about it at all!" says his sister). All in all, the book's concepts are more compelling than the story line itself. Ages 10-up. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature - Children's Literature
In this honest, touching story, fourteen-year-old Shawn McDaniel describes how his life is like a "good news-bad news" joke. The good news--he loves living in Seattle, he thinks his brother and sister are pretty cool and he has the ability to recall everything he's ever heard since the age of five. The bad news--his parents are divorced and he has cerebral palsy, a condition that leaves him motionless and unable to control his muscles or communicate with others. Everyone around Shawn believes he is retarded and has no understanding of his surroundings. However, this belief couldn't be further from the truth. Shawn's actually quite alive on the inside, and he finds pleasure in his dreams and everyday experiences such as driving around Seattle with his family and watching television. One day, when he overhears his father make comments about ending his son's pain and suffering, Shawn becomes afraid and anxious. His father loves him tremendously--in fact he writes a poem about Shawn's condition, which wins the Pulitzer Prize--but he's torn about whether or not to end his son's life. The debate about euthanasia continues throughout the rest of the book, and the abrupt ending leaves the reader wondering about his father's final decision. Although this topic is very controversial, the author handles it tactfully and provides an insightful look into the life of a physically handicapped teenager. This unforgettable, eye-opening book makes an excellent selection for both young adults and adults. 2000, HarperCollins, Ages 10 up, $14.95. Reviewer: Debra Briatico—Children's Literature
KLIATT
Shawn, age 14, lives in Seattle, and he tells us the "good news" about himself first: he has total recall of everything he has ever heard, a talent that makes him proud. But the "bad news" that follows is truly heart-rending; Shawn is confined to a wheelchair, so severely disabled with cerebral palsy that he can't control any of his muscles, and frequently experiences seizures—which he enjoys, as they help him feel like he can escape his body. He can't talk, walk or feed himself, can't even swallow or blink when he wants to. Worst of all, no one knows that he has a lively intellect, because he has no way of communicating. The stress of caring for Shawn has broken up his parents' marriage; Shawn says of his father, "He couldn't handle my condition, so he had to leave." But his writer/journalist father does love him; he even wrote a touching poem about Shawn that helped to win him a Pulitzer Prize. Now Shawn's father is interested in the case of a man who killed his brain-damaged son—and Shawn begins to strongly suspect that his father may be thinking of killing him. Even more heart-rending, this novel was written by the mother of such a child, as she explains in an author's note at the end. She holds out the hope that her young son, like Shawn, might be a "secret genius witty and funny and wise;" sadly, no one will ever know because he has no way of communicating. This book will provoke thought and discussion, as it ends without making it clear whether or not Shawn's father will kill him, thinking that he will be putting Shawn out of his pain and not understanding the bright, thoughtful person trapped inside a body that won't obey him. It certainly will help YAs understandsomething of what life might be like for the severely handicapped, and for their families. KLIATT Codes: JS—Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2000, HarperCollins, 118p, $14.89. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
From The Critics
With a voice tucked deep inside the lead character's psyche, not unlike Bruce Brooks' recent novel Vanishing, Terry Trueman has his protagonist, a young man with cerebral palsy named Shawn, describe his situation in this way: "I do sometimes wonder what life would be like if people, even one person, knew that I was smart and that there's an actual person hidden inside my useless body; I am in here, I'm just sort of stuck in neutral." Shawn lives his life in a wheelchair. He has total aural recall of everything he has ever heard, which gives him a unique perspective on the world. Sadly, he cannot share what he knows and feels. Shawn's father is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who has written about his son in a blank verse poem (quoted throughout the book in snatches) that brings audiences to tears. In one poignant moment, we see Shawn listening to the poem read aloud, as people watch him and hear about him. The real dramatic focus of the novel is Shawn's divorced father's sudden interest in a real life case of a father who killed his son (who had been afflicted with a similar physical disability) in an attempt to bring an end to his suffering. Shawn wonders, "Is my own father planning to kill me?" What gives added tension to Shawn's predicament is his total inability to communicate with anybody and his total dependency on others. This novel could have taken a more plot-driven tack, creating a Hitchcock-like story with suspense and pathos. Instead, first-time author Trueman has made the events of the story take second place and written a wonderful inner dialogue, giving voice to a fully-aware, witty, bright, and normal young man who just happens to have cerebral palsy. The voice isamazingly true to any fourteen-year-old young man, lusty, funny, self-deprecating, and loving. Readers will be fascinated by Shawn's description of what it is like to be severely handicapped and what out-of-body experiences feel like when he has seizures. It is not clear at the end of the novel exactly what does happen. Does the father emulate the news story he has been studying and actually kill his own son, or does he face his frustrations and try to deal with the handicap in a more positive way? Stuck in Neutral will raise ethical questions and probably inspire some young readers to seek more practical knowledge about the handicapped. One thing is sure: readers will be fascinated by and care about Shawn. 2000, HarperCollins, $14.95. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Stephen Fraser — The Five Owls, September/October 2000 (Vol. 15 No. 1)
School Library Journal
Gr 5-9-Shawn McDaniel has cerebral palsy. With no control of physical functions, he appears to the outside world, including his family, to be hopelessly retarded-a "vegetable." Because he narrates the story, readers know that he is, in fact, a near genius, completely aware of his surroundings, and able to remember everything he has ever heard. He has a rich inner life, full of humor and insight, and is capable of the most normal feelings of a 14-year-old boy. Most of his day is spent in a wheelchair where he is attended to by his mother and older siblings. His father, an author and celebrity on the talk-show circuit, left the family because of Shawn and his problems, but maintains a relationship with him. Shawn suspects that his father, in order to end his perceived pain and suffering, is considering killing him. With this intriguing premise, Trueman presents readers with thought-provoking issues. The character of Shawn, compassionately drawn, will challenge them to look beyond people's surfaces. His struggle to be known, and ultimately loved, is vividly captured, and the issue of euthanasia is handled boldly but sensitively. In the final scene, Shawn, alone with his father, waits vulnerably as the man struggles with his options. Readers must draw their own conclusions as his father's dilemma is left unresolved. This story is bound to spark much lively discussion.-Tim Rausch, Crescent View Middle School, Sandy, UT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
A teenager with profound cerebral palsy, who is utterly unable to give even those who know him best the faintest sign that he is sentient, narrates this devastating family portrait-cum-moral conundrum. Inside Shawn's twitching, drooling, seizure-racked body is a sane, intelligent teenager with an eidetic memory. A sympathetic observer of the effect his presence has on everyone around him, he leads a relatively rich, if vicarious, inner life. It is fueled by dreams (or perhaps more than dreams) of flight, total recall of everything he has ever seen or heard, and feelings as intense as anyone's: love, amusement, bemusement, frustration—and anxiety. He overhears comments about "ending his pain," from his doting, tormented father Sydney—who has begun research for a biography of a man convicted of smothering a profoundly disabled child. Trueman has a son with CP, and has obviously drawn in part from that experience, both for the story's events and for the issues he raises involving the social and emotional costs of caring for the physically helpless. Thematically, the story is built around Sydney's dilemma as he desperately searches for reasons not to end his son's life, and finds many seductive, compelling arguments otherwise; the abrupt, ambiguous ending leaves him on the verge of killing Shawn, or not, and so transmits his inner debate to readers. Though character is not the author's strongest concern here, like the similarly lucid brain-damaged teen in Joan Leslie Woodruff's The Shiloh Renewal (1999), Shawn will stay with readers, not for what he does, but for what he is and has made of himself. (Fiction. 12 )
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780613444194
  • Publisher: Turtleback Books: A Division of Sanval
  • Publication date: 12/1/2003
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 4.72 (w) x 7.12 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Terry Trueman grew up in the northern suburbs of Seattle, Washington. He attended the University of Washington, where he received his BA in creative writing. He also has an MS in applied psychology and an MFA in creative writing, both from Eastern Washington University.

Terry is also the author of Stuck in Neutral and its companion novel, Cruise Control; Hurricane; 7 Days at the Hot Corner; No Right Turn; and Inside Out.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My name is Shawn McDaniel. My life is like one of those "good news—bad news" jokes. Like, "I've got some good news and some bad news–which do you wanna hear first?"

In the jokes, it's always the good news first, so here goes: I've spent my entire time on planet Earth, all fourteen (almost fifteen!) years I've been alive, in Seattle. Seattle is actually a hundred times cooler than you could believe unless you lived here too. Some people gripe and moan about the rain and the weather, but I love Seattle. I even like the rain.

Our house is about a mile from the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, Key Arena where the Sonics play, and the Pacific Science Center. And we're only about a mile and a half from Bell Town, the unofficial former Grunge Capital of the universe. I'm the youngest kid in our family, three years younger than my sister, Cindy, and two years younger than my brother, Paul, who, although I'd hate for them to know I admitted it, are pretty cool for a brother and sister.

Okay, that's good news, huh? Here's some more: I have this weird–I don't know what you'd call it–ability? Gift? Power? Whatever name you want to give it, the thing is that I can remember everything I ever hear, perfectly, with total recall. I mean Everything! Perfectly! Totally! I don't know of anybody else, anywhere, who can do this. Most people remember bits and pieces of things they've heard in life, but I've got it all, every sound, ever.

This started when I was three or four years old. At first I could only remembermost of what I heard. But by the time I was five years old, everything I heard just stayed in my head. I can remember people talking, TV commercials, every melody I've ever listened to from boring, brain-dead country Muzak to nasty rap lyrics, to the theme music from Jeopardy!, to–well–everything: lines from movies, overheard conversations that strangers were having in the street, like–"Well, do you still love him or not?" I heard one lady say this to another lady while they were waiting for the bus in front of our house, and swoosh came the sound of the bus along the wet road, and its brakes went squeal . . . eeeekkk and the other lady answered, "I don't know. I haven't eaten turkey since he left on Thanksgiving."

For all you know, I might remember, perfectly, what you said to your girlfriend two years ago when I overheard you two fighting outside the Orange Julius at Northgate, or what your dad said to you in Champs when you were ten, and you and he were shopping for a baseball mitt. Remember, you wanted that Ken Griffey Jr. autographed model but your dad said it cost too much. He wanted you to buy a cheaper one made in Taiwan. Your dad said, "Come on, I can write Ken Griffey Jr. right in here," and he pointed at a spot in the pocket of the glove, and you said, "Can you really do that?" And your dad said, "Has the pope got a bullet in him?" And you both laughed. I'm not making it up. It happened. And if I heard you again, even once, after all these years, I'd recognize you, I'd remember your voice, the sound of it, perfectly.

I hope I'm not coming off as conceited here. I'm sure I am. I mean, I do think that my hearing memory is kind of amazing, but it's not like it's made me rich or famous. I just happen to have this one talent that I know makes me gifted and special–yuck! I hate that word "special" when it's applied to people. As in "he's a very special person." Geez! Who isn't! But the other side of people is true too. Everybody has negatives about themselves, stuff they wish wasn't a part of them. The bad news about us.

I could go on about my good news for hours, but you probably want to hear the punch line, my bad news, right? Well, there isn't that much, really, but what's here is pretty wild. First off, my parents got divorced ten years ago because of me. My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn't divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul–he divorced me. He couldn't handle my condition, so he had to leave. My condition? Well, that brings us to the guts of my bad news.

One bad news deal is that in the eyes of the world, I'm a total retardate. A "retard." Not "retard" like you might use the word to tease a friend who just said or did something stupid. I mean a real retard. Real in the same way that total means total. As in total retard: Everybody who knows me, everybody who sees me, everybody, anybody who even gets near me would tell you I'm dumb as a rock. Let me illustrate through the wonders of science.

Every year the school district sends out a school psychologist (scientist) to test me for IEPs (Individual Educational Plans). And every year since I was six, the psychologist gives me a bunch of tests ("scientifically normed and standardized"), which are mainly intelligence tests filled with shapes and colors, square pegs and round holes, and "Who was George Washington?" and "What's two plus one?" And every year I sit there and miss every question, fling the blocks into the air or drop them all over or smack myself in the eye with one. Then the shrink goes in and gives my mom a number: I.Q. = 1.2, or mental age 3 to 4 (that's months, not years). Then the psychologist packs up his scientific garbage and moves on to the next dummy.

This has gone on for eight years now. Every year, year in and year out. Yep, according to the world I'm dumb as a fence post. I've heard the docs explain why they think I'm so stupid to my parents and my parents explain it to their friends about a trillion times. They think it's because my brain doesn't work. They don't know that is only partially true.

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Table of Contents

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  • Posted March 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    stuck in neutral

    this month i read a book called stuck in neutral. written by a man name terry trueman. stuck in neutral is fiction because all the events could happen in some life for real. this book was choosen by a friend she told me it was really good and the cover of the book caught my eye the picture and the color was just there saying"read me". shawn is the main character he is telling the story he is a disable kid and his father left him when he was younger because he could not deal with his son condition that he had. the events that happen in the book i could not really relate to but some of the events i could. it was was very sad, werid, and mostly confusing. it was the perfect length. on a scale of 1 to 5 i give it a 2

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    Posted December 7, 2009

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