The Man Who Loved Clowns
(2005) is a young adult novel and writer June Rae Wood’s debut. Loosely based on Wood’s experiences with her Down Syndrome-afflicted brother, Richard, the novel follows the emotional journey of Delrita Jenson, an emotionally-distant thirteen-year-old who imagines moving through life in an invisible protective shell, shut off from almost everyone she knows, save for her mentally-disabled uncle, Punky. But when an unspeakable tragedy lays waste to her carefully calibrated emotional shields, Delrita finally begins the painful process of emerging from her psychological cocoon to face the world.
Delrita is at school in Missouri as she tries to avoid Avanelle Shackleford, a new girl who doesn’t know about Delrita’s “invisibility” and, therefore, tries to talk with her when the two are assigned to share a math book. Since neither student has any friends, Delrita feels guilty about being a jerk to Avanelle. However, her guilt is outweighed by the fear of embarrassment she feels when other kids see Punky and are frightened of him. Delrita’s anxiety deepens when she remembers that her Aunt Queenie and Uncle Bert will be coming to her house tonight to celebrate Punky’s birthday. Delrita is deeply bothered by the way Aunt Queenie criticizes Delrita’s mom for “spoiling” Punky. In Delrita's mind, Punky deserves to be spoiled because, as someone with Down syndrome and approaching the age of forty, he likely doesn’t have much time left.
Later, Delrita and her family travel to Silver Dollar City to whittle blocks of wood into shapes, one of Delrita’s favorite hobbies. Her father tells her she should try to carve a flying swan, even though it’s much more difficult than the shapes that Delrita already struggles to complete. When her parents decide to go to an antiques market, they leave Punky behind so he doesn’t accidentally break anything. Delrita is pleased that her parents believe her mature enough to take care of Punky all by herself.
But while on their trip, her parents are involved in a traffic accident and tragically killed. Delrita finally lets loose of her emotions, screaming and weeping. It’s only when she thinks of Punky and how she must be strong for him that she settles down. Before going home with Aunt Queenie and Uncle Bert, where Delrita and Punky will live from now on, their friend from the whittling shop, Walt, gives her a package and tells her it will mean something someday.
Life at Aunt Queenie’s is difficult for Delrita. Unlike her mother, Aunt Queenie wants Punky to join a work program, while Delrita believes that the workshop for the disabled is only a step away from slave labor. Nine days after her parents’ death, Delrita finally works up the courage to go back to school. On her way, she opens the package from Walt. It is a carving of a flying swan, like the one her father encouraged her to make. It comes with a note from Walt that resonates with Delrita: "Life is like an untouched block of wood. We can carve out a beautiful niche for ourselves, or we can leave it unused and unproductive on a shelf."
Heeding those words, Delrita becomes more sociable at school, especially with Avanelle, who becomes her best friend. Delrita even develops a crush on Avanelle’s older brother, Tree. But while things are going better than ever at school, the situation at Aunt Queenie’s house continues to unravel. Queenie nears a breaking point with regard to Punky, who acts out by pouring Queenie’s expensive shampoo down the toilet and cutting the leaves off her plants. When Queenie finally resolves to send Punky to the workhouse for other disabled men and women, Delrita explodes with anger and says terrible things to Queenie. After the blowout, Delrita feels ashamed. While it’s a great sign of Delrita's progress that she lets herself feel things, her enraged behavior that night shows she still has a long way to go before she is able to control those feelings.
With the decision made to send Punky to work, Delrita accompanies him on his first day. She is surprised by the conditions—which, contrary to Delrita's imagination, are not at all slave-like—and the happy demeanor of most of the workers. An attraction even develops between Punky and one of the women who work there who also has Down syndrome.
Back at school, however, Avanelle blames Delrita for an incident in which it’s revealed to their classmates that Avanelle’s father is in prison. As her friendship with Avanelle falls apart, she grows closer to Avanelle’s brother Tree, who asks her to the school dance. But on the night of the dance, he never arrives. With Punky finally living a fulfilling life away from Delrita, Avanelle refusing to forgive Delrita, and Tree mysteriously standing her up, Delrita feels more alone than ever. When Tree tries to apologize, explaining that his mother was in labor that night, Delrita receives his apology coldly, beginning to revert to her old habits of pushing people away.
To make matters worse, Punky becomes sick—sicker than Delrita has ever seen him before. No longer able to work, he moves home where a doctor advises the family that he is dying. A few days later, Punky dies in his sleep. Delrita cradles his body, pleading with him not to go.
At Punky’s funeral, Delrita has an epiphany after seeing all the people who came to pay their respects. Touched by all the townsfolk who cared about Punky, Delrita realizes that while it’s less painful to be “invisible,” the best way to honor Punky is to be involved in other people’s lives and to try to make them happy, just as Punky did. The book ends as Delrita resolves never to hide from people again.
Named for the clown figurines Delrita carves for Punky, The Man Who Loved Clowns
is a “potent debut,” according to Publishers Weekly
, adding in its review that Wood “artfully interweaves issues of loneliness, first romance, and parental death.”