26 March 2015
Published in June 2013 ‘Courting Greta’ is Ramsey Hootman's debut novel: ‘a most unlikely romance, involving a 34-year-old crippled computer geek and a middle-aged gym teacher/ basketball coach with a penchant for addressing him as Mr. Cooke.’ Dr Emmeline Burdett critiques the novel from the perspective of a social model of disability.
Towards the end of Courting Greta, the protagonist, Samuel Cooke, finds a secret stash of romantic novels belonging to his new wife Greta. The novels portray women who are elegant and effete – the very antithesis of the active, muscular, capable Greta. The thought that Greta wished to be such a woman – that she might believe that she should be such a woman – enrages Samuel:
‘Samuel … wanted to tear the pages out, build a bonfire, and burn them all. More than that, he wanted to tear the fantasy out of her mind … Who had made her believe she needed to be like this? … He hoped they all caught pneumonia and died’. (p.369)
In this way, Ramsey Hootman acknowledges that the idea that women should be a certain way is a mere social construct, not an unchangeable fact. That Samuel himself has spina bifida and walks with crutches raises the question of how far the novel succeeds in making this point with regards to disability.
The novel quite consciously portrays a relationship between two people, neither of whom seems to be conventional relationship material – Samuel’s physical impairment and its effects are equated by Hootman with the tough and fearsome image which Greta has built around herself as protection following her traumatic adolescence.
Samuel and Greta meet when he takes a job as a teacher of computer programming at the school in Healdsburg, northern California, where Greta is the gym coach. Hootman herself grew up in Healdsburg, and this helps to infuse the novel with a great sense of place. As well as making clear that Greta’s past has resulted in her experiencing difficulties forming intimate relationships, the novel also shows us something of Samuel’s own romantic background, or lack thereof. Early on in the novel, Samuel recalls that he has not been on a date for years:
‘Jesus, not since that desperate paraplegic in college, the incident that had convinced him he was better off alone’. (p.62)
This is just one point in the novel at which Hootman skilfully reveals both Samuel’s past experiences, and his disparaging attitude towards other disabled people. Two other such incidents occur when Samuel and Greta go to watch a charity baseball game in which Samuel’s brother Chris is playing.
Soon after arriving at the stadium Samuel spots a group of disabled children being made much of by some of the baseball players, who are signing autographs and shaking hands with them. Samuel’s words on observing this – ‘I hate those things’ - make it unclear whether he actually objects to the sight of the children, or whether he is angered by the whole spectacle of them being treated as ‘special’ by the baseball players.
The latter interpretation is the correct one, seemingly, as, two pages further on, Samuel is accosted by a sports journalist also attending the baseball game. Upon discovering that Samuel’s brother was one of the baseball players, the journalist tries unsuccessfully to get Samuel to tell her which player his brother is.
Samuel, admonished by Greta for his rudeness to the journalist, thinks to himself that the headline Baseball hero plays for crippled brother is ‘Every journalist’s wet dream’ (p.203).
This, coupled with Samuel’s remarks about the sight of the disabled children with the baseball players, makes it seem very likely that, just as Samuel realises that the portrayal of the women in Greta’s romantic novels is a construct, so he also realises that the portrayal of disabled people in charity and in the media, is very often one which does disabled people no favours at all.
It is very interesting to note that Greta herself does not realise this: during Samuel’s altercation with the journalist, he:
‘wishes that Greta would turn around and give the reporter one of her death glares, but she just walked next to him, hands in her pockets’. (p.203)
This, taken together with Greta’s admonition to Samuel after he has recommended that the journalist should ‘Go fuck a cactus’ (I must remember that one!) makes it clear that, for all her iconoclasm, there are things which Greta simply doesn’t get. It is greatly to Ramsey Hootman’s credit that she has noticed it herself, not to mention having portrayed it in such a skilful and assured way.
Samuel’s complex attitude towards his impairment is also accounted for by the reaction of his father towards it. Cooke senior clearly hoped that both his sons would become successful baseball players, but Samuel’s impairment meant that this would not happen. Samuel’s spina bifida was undiagnosed until he began experiencing complications at the age of twelve, and became quite impaired very suddenly. As Samuel tells Greta:
‘The only reason I can walk is because my father – my father – mocked me for using a wheelchair. Told me I was weak, and an embarrassment to myself and my family, and fuck if that isn’t all I can think when anyone sees me in that thing’. (Pp.222-223)
Here, Samuel is exhibiting what is known as internalised oppression, which is when people from a minority group start believing the selfish and ignorant things that others say to them. It is clear that Samuel’s father’s words form part of an abusive pattern of behaviour towards his son, for at other points in the novel, Samuel recalls being beaten up by his father, and being subjected to snide remarks such as about having ‘Got what he wanted’ when he is taken to hospital.
I mentioned the equivalence that Hootman draws between Greta’s emotional damage, and Samuel’s physical impairment, and this is something, which I found unsatisfactory about the novel. Not so much the fact of the parallel being drawn, but because, though the book may be ground-breaking in its portrayal of a physically impaired character having a sexual relationship, Greta seemed far more like Samuel’s ‘carer’ than a romantic partner. Towards the beginning of their acquaintance, she tells him that ‘Kinesiology was my BS’ (p.67)
Whilst this is ideal knowledge for a gym coach to possess, it must be rather depressing to discover that the person with whom one intends to embark upon a romantic relationship seems to view one as an interesting physiological specimen.
In addition, I lost count of the number of times Greta tucks Samuel’s crutches away for him. The fact that it is Greta who persuades Samuel to ditch his indwelling catheter in favour of the Mitrofanoff Procedure does have echoes of the phenomenon described by Jenny Morris in her 1993 book Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes Towards Disability, whereby disabled characters in literature only reach their potential thanks to the intervention of a benevolent non-disabled character.
This makes disability an individual, rather than a societal issue, and I do feel that, if Courting Greta had been about Samuel Cooke’s relationship with another disabled person (such as the allegedly ‘desperate’ wheelchair-user referred to early in the novel), it would have been far more ground-breaking, both for Samuel and for the reader.
However, this is only Ramsey Hootman’s first novel, and she has plenty of time to explore disability in greater detail in other novels, of which I hope there will be many.
Courting Greta by Ramsey Hootman is published by Simon and Shuster.