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Follow My Leader Paperback – December 1, 1994
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About the Author
James B. Garfield, like his protagonist Jimmy, lost his eyesight in his late fifties and was forced to adapt. At sixty, he acquired the first of his guide dogs and worked in an aircraft plant and was instrumental in the creation of the State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind.
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To say the book had an impact on my life would be stating the obvious, as it had sat percolating in my brain cell's history files for over 47 years. I remembered Jimmy's resistance to learning braille, to getting his dog, and something about a bully of sorts that he had to contend with once he returned home from the school. I remembered, too, that while reading the book all those years ago, putting on a blindfold in the privacy of my room and trying to get a sense of what Jimmy's world was like. It was that profound a story. The characters and plot lines embedded themselves firmly in my imagination, and, too, it's not a reach to say it also helped my empathy develop to new heights.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If your children are too young for it right now, buy it and save it for them. If you are a teacher, add it to your summer reading lists (if teachers still do such things), and if your child is ready to read at this level, buy it at once, and add it to their permanent library.
There is something about this book that transcends the passage of time, and guaranteed, it will leave its mark on the way your young one sees the world. Let Garfield's Jimmy lead your child to a better understanding of themselves, and the people around them. The young man who requested books from his Secret Santa is about to have his eyes opened in a way he never could have imagined, and my only regret is that I won't be able to know the way it made his Christmas morning wondrous.
I didn't feel I covered this adequately this morning. There is a deeper side to this rediscovery that I will try to better articulate...
Though we've been Secret Santa's for a while, for some reason, this one shined a light in a corner of my mind I thought was mere history. The simple word "books" on a jotted list of wants from a young boy flipped that switch, and I lay awake for over an hour, trying to remember "Follow My Leader". I do not know why, at this moment in time, it returned from many years ago, but it had. I nearly got out of bed and went downstairs to search for the title, but ultimately decided to wait until morning. Sleep did not detour my quest.
I want to believe this was fate; you'd had to have been inside my head (a scary place of its own - not recommended on many tour guides) to experience what I was, though. It was powerful, and unrelenting. I had to find this book, and I had to give it to this young man, this boy whose name I will never know, whose face I will never see, whose reaction to the book I will not be privy to.
Destiny? Fate? Or merely the fond memories of an aging man being imposed surreptitiously on a nameless, faceless boy who anxiously awaits Christmas morning? I do not know.
But I am choosing to believe this is meant to be, that some divine, higher power led us both to this intersection to discover and rediscover Garfield's masterfully revealed Jimmy, also a boy I will never see, but one I have known since young, and to whom I will forever be grateful.
Fast forward to 2011, and now in middle age I get a scare when told that I may have a genetic condition that leaves its sufferers blind. I find I want to learn as much as I can about blindness, and along with scientific research papers and memoirs of blindness written by and for adults, "Follow My Leader" comes back to mind. I bought a copy on amazon, and decades later I finished the book I started as a kid.
And the good news is that it's a pretty good book! Yes, it was written in the 1950s, and reflects the speech, technology, and social mores of its time. Yes, it's written for teens and tweens, so the dialogue, character development, and plot are simple and unchallenging. But it remains an affecting story of a boy's adaptation to blindness. The response he evokes from sighted strangers continues to ring true to the experience of blind people today. The author manages to educate his readers and raise their consciousness about blindness and blind people without hitting them over the head with a moralistic cudgel.
As an aside, the "long dark corridor" phrase recurs a few times in "Follow My Leader." Calling Dr. Freud! I'd love to read a post-modern critic's take on a prepubescent (i.e., asexual) boy's entering a long dark tunnel, in a life where he's dominated by women (his widowed mother, [sighted] little sister, social worker, and teachers) and the men tend to be dead like Dad, blind, or superego/authority figures (like doctors, scoutmasters, and school administrators). Is disability emasculation, losing his eyeballs a metaphor for castration? Jimmy's triumphant emergence -- his assertion of manhood -- occurs in the chastely masculine contexts of his schoolboy classmates and fellow Boy Scouts.
It's a minor curiosity that the author, James Garfield, shares his name with one U.S. President, while his protagonist, Jimmy Carter, shares his with another!
You will enjoy "Follow My Leader." It's a triumph-over-adversity story that presents a sympathetic character in a reasonably true-to-life style. Children and younger adolescents will enjoy the narrative, and adults will appreciate the intimations of Jimmy's subjective experience.
Postscript: After further evaluation, it seems that I do not have the genetic condition after all. Much to my relief, Jimmy's successes notwithstanding!
Post-postscript: Don't take the Freudian paragraph too seriously; I don't.