By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City has special meaning for author Rachel Simon.
For starters it's the first city to choose her 2011 book, "The Story of Beautiful Girl," for a community reading project. It also was the home of her late friend and journalist Bethany Broadwell, who died in 2009 at age 36 from complications from muscular dystrophy.
"She interviewed me through email and we continued being in touch after the interview and became regular correspondents," said Simon, whose New York Times bestselling book deals with two characters with disabilities, and who lists Broadwell in the acknowledgements. "When I started 'Beautiful Girl' I couldn't wait for her to see it. Before I got the first draft, I got an email informing me of Bethany's death.
"Even though she isn't in Traverse City anymore my heart has been with Bethany and my heart is in Traverse City. Her spirit to me is very much part of that book."
Simon will make her first trip to Traverse City — not counting the time she landed at Cherry Capital Airport to speak at a transportation convention at nearby Crystal Mountain Resort — on Tuesday, Oct. 30. She'll give a presentation and book signing at the City Opera House as the culmination of this year's Traverse City Reads "One Book, One Community" reading project.
She'll also conduct a master class with Front Street Writers, a creative writing program for public high school students organized by Traverse City Area Public Schools and the National Writers Series.
"The Story of Beautiful Girl" follows the 40-year journey of a young white woman with a developmental disability and a deaf black man who find love together despite being locked away in an institution. Eventually the two escape and find temporary refuge with a retired schoolteacher. But when they are captured and returned to the institution, where they are kept apart for years, the young woman gives the schoolteacher her baby and asks her to hide it — and the couple's secret.
TC Reads committee member Ruth Bay said the committee chose the book for Traverse City's 11th community reading project partly because of its tie-in to the former Traverse City State Hospital and the region's resulting familiarity with developmental disability issues.
"Everybody that's reading it says it's a great book and, interestingly enough, most people have people with developmental disability issues in their family somewhere, whether it's a sibling, a child, an aunt or an uncle," Bay said.
Simon said she wrote the book to encourage thought and discussion about society's treatment of developmental disabilities, both now and historically. She said a long tradition of institutionalizing those with disabilities and treating them as "a big secret" has resulted in a society that doesn't know how to interact with them.
Though she was taken over by the story's intensity and power, she said she was surprised by the book's success. In its first year it became even more popular than her 2002 national bestselling memoir "Riding the Bus with My Sister," which was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Rosie O'Donnell as Simon's real-life developmentally disabled sister, Beth, and sparked a flurry of speaking engagements on diversity and disabilities that continues today. So far "Beautiful Girl" has been translated into 10 languages.
Simon said she focused on writing toward the book's pivotal ending, in which the lovers are finally reunited and begin a new life together.
"Part of why the ending of 'Beautiful Girl' is so joyful is because so many of those books I read as a kid about people with disabilities had them die at the end. Over and over they end in these sad ways," said the author, who earned a master's in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and taught the same at Bryn Mawr College. "It doesn't have to end in tragedy. It can end how any story about lovers can end: with them in bed."
Currently Simon is at work on her seventh book, another novel, about which she declined to elaborate. But she hinted that readers can expect more of the same.
"It's hard to imagine I would write outside the themes I write about: compassion, struggles, differences, the universality of love and loss and the importance of support," she said. "As ("Beautiful Girl") shows, disability is the one thing that crosses all boundaries. And if there is any spiritual message embodied in the book, it's that disability is God's way of letting us know we are all one family and therefore we must all care for one another."
Readers can meet the author at a 6 p.m. reception preceding her Oct. 30 talk. Tickets are $15 at the City Opera House Box Office and online at www.cityoperahouse.org, at all Traverse Area District Library locations, at Horizon Books and Brilliant Books, and at the door.