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Kenny Fries’ The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory [29 August, 2007]

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By Kenny Fries; Carroll and Graf, 224 pages

Kenny Fries was born with what his medical records call “congenital deformities of the lower extremities,” a condition of his legs so rare that there is no medical name for it.  In his latest memoir, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, Fries juxtaposes two histories.  The first is his own, a life of living with what many around him have considered an abnormality and a disability but which has been, for him, a quotidian experience.  The second is the history of the theory of evolution.  Popular mythology attributes this to Charles Darwin alone and we tend to assume that all of it came to him in a blinding flash of light, one that changed minds and the world forever.  But in fact, as is the case with all modes of inquiry, the process took years of research and Darwin was constantly testing his hypotheses with a wider circle of like-minded naturalists and scientists.  One of these was Alfred Wallace, 14 years younger than Darwin.  While they often collaborated, Darwin’s reputation eventually exceeded Wallace’s but the two remained close colleagues until the end; Wallace was one of the pallbearers at Darwin’s funeral.

What, as Fries asks in his first chapter, does any of this have to do with a pair of shoes?  The shoes in question are the specially fitted pair that Fries wore for years.  He trekked the world in them.  Over the years, as his body and gait inevitably shifted and changed, he’s had to endure numerous adjustments to the shoes and also had to resist other people’s ideas of how a disabled man should look and behave.  So, the first history is of Fries growing up and resisting widely held notions of what it means to be disabled even as he also learnt what it means to be gay.

The central evolutionary theme of this book emerges easily enough.  There are no real aberrations in nature, only adaptations—even if, sometimes, the point of a trait is not ultimately clear.  Looking at a set of blue-footed boobies on the Galapagos islands, Fries asks his guide the reason for the color of their feet: “‘No reason,’ he tells me, echoing the answer I have given countless times to people who have asked about my feet.”  In other sections of the book, Fries ponders the history of disability rights, and the shift that occurred when people with disabilities decided that they were no longer medical problems but bodies with civil rights.  He considers the history of eugenics, the popularity of which in Nazi Germany would have surely meant the extermination of people like him.

As interesting as some of this is, it doesn’t all cohere into a riveting text.  The two histories are juxtaposed but the exact connections between them are hazy.  It’s a lovely, fizzy, even sexy idea—to parallel the history of an idea with the history of a body—but the end result falls rather flat.  Fries’ musings about gay sexuality and disability synthesize the work of queer and disability theorists and activists but do not contribute much intellectual heft to their work.  The History of My Shoes reads more like a set of journal musings about interesting ideas.  However, interesting ideas don’t always make for compelling books.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 29 August, 2007

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