“The Story of Beautiful Girl” by Rachel Simon
On a rainy November night in 1968, Martha Zimmer warily opened her front door to a quiet but insistent knock. She found a black man and a slight, pale woman staring at her, covered in dripping blankets.
“Who are you?” Martha asked. The woman slowly lifted her eyes, then jerked them back down. The man caught the gesture, but did not acknowledge Martha’s voice. He rubbed his companion’s shoulder tenderly and looked at Martha with pleading. He opened his free hand and flicked his fingers toward the interior; Martha realized that he could not hear.
She ushered them in to the fire. What are they running from? Should I ask? Should I just give comfort? The couple shed their dripping coverings as Martha prepared food. When she returned, she realized that the woman held a tiny baby as the man gently wiped blood from its face.
As Martha gathered her thoughts, the couple retreated to the home’s attic. Martha set out clothing, her deceased husband’s garments for the man and her own for the woman, who emerged from the attic and dressed. Then there were more harsh, loud knocks on the door. “Police, ma’am, looking for runaways from the State School.” As the officials swarmed through the home searching, Martha noted that a window was open and saw the man–Number Forty-Two–running into the darkness. The woman, Lynnie, is bundled into the institution’s car, but not before she is able to whisper two words to Martha: “Hide. Her.”
Thus begins the new life of the childless widow and retired teacher, Martha Zimmer, with the baby the couple has hidden in the attic, whom she names Julia. As a teacher, Martha had maintained contact over the years with her students, and it is to these individuals that she reaches out in an unfamiliar journey to both hide and raise a child with whom she quickly bonds. She leaves her farmhouse and its lighthouse mailbox that night, and over time she learns much more about the reasons Julia must be hidden.
Lynnie returns to the School, to the protection of staff member Kate, who quickly recognizes the truth. Kate protects Lynnie’s secret, but eventually she reaches out through her own detective work and forges bonds with one of Martha’s student protectors. In this way, she learns more about the baby’s life as she grows up. Lynnie continues to yearn for her daughter and the return of her precious Number Forty-Two, who had opened a new view of the world to her during their time together. Kate strives to develop Lynnie’s innate artistic gifts, which are part of the last threads woven together by Simon in the novel’s conclusion.
Number Forty-Two, whose name, we learn, is Homan, is assumed to be dead, drowned in a swollen river. He is, in fact, living a life of survival, on the run from one place to another, simultaneously searching to return to Lynnie–Beautiful Girl, in his sign language.
In 1972, journalist Geraldo Rivera, with a stolen key and a hidden camera, entered the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island in New York City; his special report horrified the nation. The fictional Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded is exposed in a similar way by events set in motion by Martha Zimmer and one of her students. As the self-advocacy movement gathers steam into the 1970s and 1980s, the State School is closed and its residents move to find meaningful places in the community.
I read The Story of Beautiful Girl twice, mesmerized during the first reading by the unfolding of Simon’s story. The second reading revealed the nuances of each character. There are revelations about Martha’s marriage to Earl and his grief over the loss of their child, an event that irrevocably changed their lives and the tenor of their relationship. The glimpses of Lynnie’s childhood demonstrate her capacity for love and attachment, her internal life and dialogue that she chose not to verbalize. Homan is fully drawn with resilience and intelligence; he possesses an abundance of both street smarts and native ability that are at last realized fully. Kate is steadfast and persistent in her love for Lynnie; she takes the role of parent and advocate for Lynnie even after the school is closed. Martha forges a new life for herself as Julia’s grandmother, knowing that she may be gone before Julia fully reaches adulthood, and writing letters that she collects for her to read at some point in the future. And, finally, we see the significance of Martha’s lighthouse mailbox as the novel concludes.
Rachel Simon is best known for her memoir, Riding the Bus with my Sister, a national best seller that became a seminal work in the disability community and was adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2005. Her other works include the memoir The House on Teacher’s Lane and the novel The Magic Touch. HLM