Gwyn Hyman Rubio

Icy Sparks

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Icy Sparks Summary

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Icy Sparks (1998), a novel by Gwyn Hyman Rubio, follows a young girl growing up in a rural community where no one understands her because she suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. Receiving an overwhelmingly positive critical response upon its publication, the New York Times named it a Notable Book and it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2001. Rubio served in the Peace Corps and taught in Costa Rica for many years. She wrote for ten years before Icy Sparks, her debut novel, was published. Icy Sparks is Rubio’s most popular novel.

Ten-year-old Icy Sparks lives in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky with her grandparents. Icy wishes she could remember parents who died when she was a baby. Although she misses her parents, she is happy and well-adjusted.

The book opens just after Icy’s tenth birthday. Eating breakfast on a Saturday morning, she starts blinking uncontrollably. She tenses up, staring across the breakfast table at her grandmother, Matanni. When Matanni asks Icy what she’s staring at, Icy comments on Matanni’s upper lip hair. The comment comes from nowhere and Icy can’t stop herself. She knows that it is rude, but she can’t stop the words leaving her mouth.

In Icy’s community of Poplar Holler, she is an anomaly. She makes rude comments all the time, and her muscles and eyes twitch frequently. No one understands her, and her grandparents can’t figure out what is wrong with her. Assuming she is rude and evil, some townsfolk don’t want their children hanging out with her.

Icy’s condition deteriorates. She croaks and makes strange noises; her grandparents assume she is crazy. They worry about what is going to happen to her when they die. What they don’t know is how hard Icy tries to hide her condition from everyone. What the community sees is only half the problem. Icy hides in the cellar every day to vent and shout. She learns to control the worst of her tics and let them out when she is alone.

Icy knows there is something wrong with her but she has nowhere to turn for help. Her teachers isolate her from the other students, and her only friend is an obese woman who runs a local store. Frantic, Icy’s grandparents take desperate measures. They admit her to an asylum for professional help.

At the asylum, Icy feels lonelier and stranger than ever. Although she knows she is not like other people, she knows she doesn’t belong in a mental institution. She doesn’t need medication, and she misses her community. She is terrified, especially because the hospital staff bullies and harasses her, but her grandparents won’t let her come home.

Eventually, one of the hospital nurses takes pity on her. She suspects that Icy needs different care, and that hospital is only going to make her worse. The staff convinces Icy’s grandparents to let her return home. When Icy leaves the hospital, things are never the same at home. She doesn’t leave the house and she doesn’t return to school. She has no friends and she doesn’t speak to anyone other than her grandparents.

Icy’s grandfather doesn’t trust her, and she feels like a burden. Matanni, on the other hand, tries to help her. She encourages Icy to go out, meet people, and stop dwelling on her condition, but Icy is too scared. She is worried that she will offend people in town and end up back in the mental institution.

Icy’s grandparents grow older, and her grandfather eventually dies. Matanni despairs because Icy still can’t look after herself. She fears that Icy will never marry and will be alone forever. Icy vows to do everything she can to find a cure. When the medical community lets her down, Icy turns to religion, and Matanni joins her.

The religious community is a welcoming place. They accept everyone, including Icy. Icy spends her free time with the congregation, learning about God. One day, she is invited to watch a ceremony. During the ceremony, people welcome the Holy Spirit into their bodies. It is a holy and divine ritual, and Icy is terrified that she will ruin it. However, this ritual changes Icy’s life forever.

Participants receive the Holy Spirit and start acting strangely. They twitch, cry, croak, and groan the way Icy does. Icy realizes that her condition isn’t hell-sent after all, and there is nothing evil about her. Matanni believes that Icy has been touched by the Holy Spirit, and she regrets ever pushing Icy away.

Icy’s grandmother dies, and Icy turns to music and ceremony. Music is the only thing that makes her feel calm and in control. She decides that there is a future for her after all; she is accepted into college. When she leaves the community behind to start college, she is diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome.

Icy had never heard of Tourette’s before, but everything makes sense now. For the first time since she was a little girl, she feels peace. Deciding that she wants to help other people with the condition, she trains as a therapist. When the novel closes, she is working as a speech therapist helping selective mutes and Tourette’s sufferers handle their conditions.