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Monday, December 20, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: "Follow My Leader"


-by James B. Garfield
 First published in 1957, Viking Press.
 This edition 1994, Puffin Books, NY.
 ISBN 0-14-036485-4

This review (one of several) was on the website for Garfield's book, Follow My Leader:
From the Author's Granddaughter, July 7, 2008
This review is from: Follow My Leader (Paperback)
I'm James Garfield's granddaughter. He dedicated the book to my mother, Carolyn Lazarus, who is now 81 years old. My granddad lived to be 102 years old, living half of his life blind. He had a seeing eye dog, Coral, a golden retriever who was the sweetest animal I've ever met and she was so very attentive to him. He would have been very flattered to read these reviews so I thank all of you who have taken the time to write about Follow My Leader.

Follow My Leader is a touching story about an 11-year-old boy who looses his eyesight in an accident involving a firecracker (didn't our mothers always tell us this would happen?).  Jimmy Carter (no, not the President) learns to cope with his blindness through the help and guidance of Miss Thompson, a State Department of Rehabilitation therapist.  She teaches him Braille and mobility skills, including navigation with a cane.

Eventually, Jimmy is accepted into a guide dog school and travels 400 miles on his own to attend training and receives "Sirius," his German Shepherd "eyes."  Jimmy later changes the dog's name to "Leader," a name that turns out to be appropriate in more ways than one!

Jimmy's nine-year-old sister, Carolyn, his friends Chuck and Art, his single-mom, Ruth, and his aunt Martha accompany and support him in his journey through anger, fear, uncertainty, tentative confidence, forgiveness, and finally independence.  Jimmy finds allies at the guide dog school among his classmates and trainer, Mr. Weeks, but his roommate, Mack MacDonald, is the one who plants the seed that ultimately leads to Jimmy's "real" healing.

It was intriguing to read Garfield's granddaughter's review.  Garfield's blindness certainly enable him to draw upon his own feelings; real feelings that radiate clearly in his descriptions of Jimmy finding his way in this newly-dark world.  The fact that Jimmy's school refuses to allow access to Leader make it obvious that Garfield wrote Follow My Leader long before the American Disabilities Act (ADA), but details about Jimmy's mobility training are informative and entertaining.  For instance, the sequence when Miss Thompson coaches Jimmy in "facial vision" as he learns to feel air currents is fascinating.

    Jimmy clapped his hands and thought he heard the sound bounce back to him—like radar and like the bat.
    “Now I’ll lead you to the door.” Miss Thompson took his arm.  “You can clap your hands again and hear the difference.”
    Jimmy stood in front of the doorway and clapped his hands.  “Why,” he said, “it doesn’t sound just different, it feels different!”
    “Good!  You feel the air current,” she told him.
    “Yes, it’s blowing into the room a little.”
    “That is another way of seeing with your face.  You can both hear and feel.  Now Jimmy,” she went on, “if you will stand close to the wall I’ll let you try something else.  Here, stand about two feet from the wall and lean slowly toward it.”
    “What must I look for?”  Jimmy asked.
    “I’m going to let you see what you find.”
    “I found something.”  Jimmy turned his cheek to the wall.  “If I get close enough it sounds like putting a seashell to my ear.”
     “That’s too close,” she said.  “Remember you felt the air moving through the door.  All the air in this room is moving.  It strikes the wall and  starts back toward the center of the room, but meets another current of air that stops it.”
    “Then where does it go?” Jimmy tried to feel the breeze.
    “It just piles up against the wall and forms a sort of blanket or cushion,” Miss Thompson explained.
    “You mean the air is compressed near the wall?”  Jimmy asked.
    “Yes, Jimmy.”
    Jimmy turned his face in several directions.  “Hey, I think I’ve got it.”
    “All right.  Now how far are you from the wall?”  she asked.
    “Try it and see,” she suggested, and Jimmy found the wall.
    “Now step back a few steps and then walk slowly forward,” Miss Thompson instructed, “but stop just before you reach the wall and tell me how near you are to it.”
    The three children watched as Jimmy tried the experiment several times.
    “I want you to practice that, Jimmy, until you can walk right up to the wall and stop about one foot from it.”
    “All right, Miss Thompson, but I wish the walls wore perfume!”
p. 57-58

As a puppy-raiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind, I was particularly interested in Jimmy's experience at the guide dog school.  (However, it is unlikely today that an 11-year-old would receive a guide dog; age 16 is the requirement at Leader Dogs.)  Before Jimmy meets Leader, he spends three days with Mr. Weeks learning commands in much the same manner as is currently practiced at Leader Dogs.  Leader Dogs calls this "Juno" training--the trainer manipulates the harness and acts as the guide dog for the person!

The next morning Jimmy went for a solo walk with Mr. Weeks.  He was given one end of a handle like the one a guide dog wears on his harness, and Mr. Weeks held the other end....They practiced for about an hour over the obstacle course, with Mr. Weeks playing guide dog.  Jimmy said afterward that Mr. Weeks did everything but bite.  "He growled once in a while when I made a silly mistake, but it was a lot of fun.  I can't wait to get my dog."   p. 104-106

Read Follow My Leader if you are interested in guide dogs.  Share it with youngsters; there is hope and solutions no matter how dark things get, and lessons to be learned about forgiveness and healing.  Enjoy the book, but keep in mind that Garfield wrote it in the 1950's, before the ADA (and before women's rights).  Sorry, I tried not to go there--that's all I'll say!


  1. I loved FOLLOW MY LEADER as a kid and was so happy to share it with my own kids (and my customers' kids) - but couldn't find info about the author, James B. Garfield. However, through that Amazon post I was privileged to connect with the author's family and get all kinds of great info and photos to share about this amazing man who made such a difference for the blind. You can read the article and get tons of free resources for this book here:

    Enjoy! and thanks for helping to spread the word about his wonderful book.

  2. What a great story. In 1961 my first grade teacher read Follow My Leader to my class as we could not read yet. We were all silent and excited as the teacher read the story to us. She read us a chapter a day and we would discuss it when she stopped reading. It had a major impact on my life as a child concerning the dangers of fire crackers, being blind, and adjusting to a new world. Growing up I never forgot that story but I could not remember the title. I watched a movie the other day called Bright Victory and it reminded me of that story my teacher read to us 54 years ago. I got on the computer and typed in a boy blinded by fire cracker, goes to blind school, and gets a seeing eye dog. The title came up. I could not believe I finally found the book.. I told my wife and daughter about the story and how I finally found the title after 50 plus years. My daughter came home one night after work and handed me the book she had ordered for me. Just finished reading the book. My wife and daughter want to read it.

    1. Yours is a great story too! Thanks for sharing, and for stopping by.