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Pickle Me This

July 2, 2015

Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart

beyond the paleEmily Urquhart’s Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Hidden Genes, is an interesting companion to Eula Biss’s On Immunity, both books inhabiting a fascinating creative space bridging science and lore, and underlining the expansiveness and importance of issues and ideas raised by motherhood. Both books also show the ways in which the experience of motherhood has a trajectory rich with unexpected directions, taking a mother to places she is rarely forecasting, not least of all at that pivotal, complicated, loaded moment when she sees her new baby for the first time.

For Urquhart, that moment was especially loaded. Her daughter was born in St. John’s Newfoundland on Boxing Day 2010 with a crown of snow white hair. From all around the hospital, people came to see the baby with the unusual hair, and it all seemed quite natural to Urquhart, a scholar of folklore in which wondrous children are often born on ominous days and people come from all around to see. It soon becomes clear, however, that matters are more complicated, when doctors determine that Baby Sadie has albinism. While initially, this diagnosis is upsetting, being not what Urquhart had envisioned for her child—Sadie has vision problems, her skin is extremely sensitive to sun damage, Urquhart imagines the social difficulties Sadie will encounter in looking different from her peers—she and her husband embark upon their own journey toward understanding their daughter’s genetic condition and loving her difference (for it is a part of the person they love, after all). It’s a journey that takes them to North American Albinism conferences, to Tanzania to learn about organizations dedicated to assist children with albinism whose lives are threatened by witch doctors who use their body parts for “medicine,” and them back into Urquhart’s own family tree to learn the history of her daughter’s particular genetic makeup.

It’s a journey that Urquhart spends much of the time finding her way on, seeking answers to her questions, examining her feelings and perspectives, feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed, unsure and ill-at-ease. Which makes her an unusual commander of a literary ship, so used to are we of being guided by a voice that is large and confident. On one hand, this undermines the book a little bit—the depth and refinement of Urquhart’s thought is understated. And yet this quality distinguishes the book as well, that Urquhart shows her work, her process—here is a different kind of non-fiction, one reflecting a truer experience of one embarking out into the unknown. Like Maria Mutch’s mesmerizing Know the NightBeyond the Pale is a parenting memoir that takes its reader deeper into the world.

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