Stuck In Neutral Summary

Terry Trueman

Stuck in Neutral

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Stuck In Neutral Summary

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Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman is a novel about Shawn McDaniel. At fourteen years old, Shawn is certain that his father is trying to kill him, but not because he is angry at him. Shawn is convinced that his father loves him and wants to end his suffering–mainly caused by cerebral palsy. Since he was born, Shawn has been unable to control his muscles after a blood vessel burst in his brain. Walking, smiling, even lifting his arms are all outside of Shawn’s capabilities, and this convinces his family that his brain also does not function. However, Shawn’s brain functions just fine. He remembers everything he hears with perfect clarity, but because he cannot translate his thoughts into words, he is trapped and unable to insist that he is capable of functional thought.

Shawn’s family, which includes a brother named Paul who is sixteen years old and a sister named Cindy who is seventeen, lives in Seattle. His mother cares for him, taking care of his needs day in, day out, since his father left shortly after his birth. He was not able to cope with Shawn’s suffering, especially the seizures. Every day, he has six to twelve seizures. While they were painful at first, he is used to them now and can trigger an out-of-body experience when they strike. These experiences, led by his imagination, take him throughout Seattle and the surrounding area. He has come to love the grand mal seizures because of this.

A poem Shawn’s father, Sydney, wrote about the effects of cerebral palsy on their family won the Pulitzer Prize. The poem centers around Sydney’s difficulties accepting Shawn’s illness and witnessing his pain. Sydney is working on a new project, which highlights how Earl Detraux suffocated his own two-year-old son to stop his suffering. Sydney wants to depict Earl as a man who gave up everything to save his child, and not as a murderer. Sydney goes onto a talk show called the Alice Ponds Show, and discusses Earl and his actions. Shawn hears about this and fears that the same fate awaits him, that his father is planning to end Shawn’s life.

Shawn believes his father loves him and wants to kill him to end his suffering, but since he cannot speak or write, he cannot tell his father that he wants to live, and that his mind is as vibrant and powerful as anyone else’s. At the end of the novel, Sydney visits Shawn. He sits with him on his bed and holds a pillow. He cries and promises that he loves Shawn. Just then, a seizure occurs and Shawn escapes into his imagination, putting his fate in his father’s hands.

One of the main themes in Stuck in Neutral is suffering. Symbolized by Shawn’s seizures, suffering drives Sydney to want to kill Shawn. He cannot bear to watch his son suffer seizure after seizure. Shawn, and the reader, know that these seizures represent freedom to him, not suffering, but there is nothing he can do to stop his father. Sydney wants to end not only Shawn’s supposed suffering, but also his own. To witness his son experience seizures is too painful for Sydney.

This leads to another important theme–love. Shawn describes a familial love, which prevents his family from seeing whom he really is. This is the love that drives Sydney to want to suffocate Shawn. Shawn experiences the beginnings of another type of love when he meets Cindy’s friend, Ally. He thinks if he can manage to find this love, then it means someone will be able to see past the obligation of family to discover who he really is.

Death is another important theme, and one that Shawn thinks about frequently. He wants to live, but realizes that he doesnot have control over his own fate. This leads to the final major theme, which is that of helplessness. Shawn’s mother must do everything for him, and he is powerless to stop his father’s actions.

The novel is written in twelve chapters. About halfway through the book, each chapter includes a stanza of the poem that won Sydney the Pulitzer Prize. Not only do these stanzas provide insight into Sydney’s character, they advance the plot of Stuck in Neutral. Because the novel is written in first-person point of view, the reader is thrust into Shawn’s mind, which is compelling, particularly in this novel as Shawn is trapped there. The reader ends up feeling closer to Shawn than any of the other characters in the book, since only Shawn and the reader know his thoughts.

Terry Trueman is a novelist and poet, as evidenced by the poem Sydney writes in Stuck in Neutral, Trueman’s debut novel. Stuck in Neutral won the Michael L. Printz Honor award in 2001. This award honors books written for teenagers; the award is based on literary merit.