Reviewed by Amy Susan Wilson
Disabilities, a family murder, Mississippi, a mental institution, and the spirit of redemption all appear in Lauren Leigh’s debut novel, Retarded Girl Raised in Dog Pen. Every chapter, while often bearing brutal abuse in the household of a rural Mississippi family, rings like a bell, clear and resonant with no false notes.
Leigh’s murder mystery also offers a sympathetic look at the hardships, bias and discrimination that special needs individuals face. Specifically, Baby is an adopted Down Syndrome child with a severe and profound nature. She is blind, paralyzed from the waist down, and unable to speak. Her father, Angus, a Mississippi deputy sheriff, bans her from the home when she is a toddler, and she is raised outside in a dog pen for the next ten years of her life. Baby must share the pen with two prized bird dogs, which Angus values more than Baby. At night Baby clings to a ragged, soiled blue blanket and is tormented at times by wild hogs.
Called to the home on account of the brutal axe murder of Angus, Baby’s father, Baby is found in her pen and is immediately placed in the custody of the State of Mississippi. Her new home is the Mississippi Mental Institution. Baby’s mother, Rivers, who objected to her abusive husband’s demand that Baby remain permanently in the dog pen, is charged with Angus’s murder and placed in police custody. Eventually she lands on death row. Baby misses her mother; Rivers misses Baby and the absence haunts both mother and daughter. Their mother-daughter bond and the sense of alienation felt by a loving mother who believes she cannot protect her vulnerable daughter—not to mention Baby’s intuitive understanding of her mother’s unconditional love for her—evoke powerful and unforgettable emotions.
Shortly after she’s incarcerated in the mental institution, Baby is found capable of communication, despite being trapped in a grotesque body that in past eras could have landed her as a performer in the “freak show” with a traveling carnival. The fact that Baby can communicate through hand signals is very important—she was present in the pen when her father was bludgeoned to death and, therefore, was a witness to the bloody murder.
As Rivers sits on death row and the clock ticks down on her own death, two questions arise: How much does Baby know about Angus’s murder, and can she prove her mother’s innocence and lead authorities to the true killer? The novel’s conclusion offers an unexpected yet logical ending that flips from raw and biting to warm and human so quickly the reader is left breathless.
Written in the spirit and tradition of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Leigh’s first novel celebrates the triumph of compassion and intellect over cruelty and calloused indifference to human suffering. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, among other Southern classics, Leigh’s novel explores the complex dimensions of intellectual disability. Like Lee’s novel, Retarded Girl Raised in Dog Pen will resonate not only as a luminous Southern novel but also as a narrative that artfully and skillfully illuminates and calls attention to the struggle of those with special needs.
Leigh’s world reminds us how rich and enriching Southern novels are in an age of rapid transformation, when what and how we read is, it seems, in flux.