“The Away Place”, set in the early 1970’s, involves two interwoven stories, the story of John Cobe, an adult with down syndrome, and his struggles to live a “normal” life as he emerges from a state institution, and story of Sarah Richardson, the idealistic doctrol student who both fights for the right of the disabled and tries to right a wrong her mother commited. Through John’s voice, though cognitively limited, we find him to be a surprisingly creative individual who seeks relashionship with others while seeing the world in terms of good guys and Mean men. In Sarah we see a woman conflicted over the unfairness of life who is drivento make a difference in the world.
John has lived in “Larkspur State Home and training School” all his life, though he sometime wonders what is outside in the “Away Place” He thrives on his laundry job and his friendship with Lonnie using his vivid imagination to virtually leave his captive world, such as play acting TV shows. He pretends he has a family, kissing picture of “mama” every nioght (a picture we later find cut out has been from a magazine).
Sara’s crusade begins when her mother confesses to her on her deathbed that she had a child when she was a teenager who later died in an institution. Partly to atone for her mother having put the Down Syndrome baby in an institution, and partly out of regret that she never had the chance to know her brother, Sarah pursues her doctorate in adult developmental disabilities by starting an experimental group home. She intends to demonstrate that even severely and profoundly retarted individuals can live sucessfully in the community and should not be shut away in archaic.
Sarah selects John and Lonnie and they are suddenly moved from the familiarity of Starlight Hall to Sarah’s group home, a lovely old house in the heart of small college town in Oregon. Besides John who can’t read nor count pass three, and Lonnie, who uses only sign language, loves to tie his socks into knots and get in stubborn “no moods” when crossed, Sarah chooses three other clients, Mick has significant behavior problems, stealing food and stuffing his mouth until he chokes, hoarding pencils by the dozen, striking out at people who get in his way. Peter is autistic, flapping his hands and rocking to escape interaction with others- worse, he screams and beats his head when touched. finally, Ricky is the evil-minded, explicative-spewing resident who looks normal but refuses to learn new skills, becoming increasingly hard to mange as time goes on. Sarah is challenged is challenged to understand each client’s needs, to develope programs to teach new skills, and to manage her inexperienced staff, in addition to conducting her research.
John becomes the star client, adapting rapidly and liking the feeling of being grown up. He especially likes sarah and quickly becomes attached to her, In the newfound freedom of the group home, John’s creativity is set loose. Using his charming imagination he and lonnie put on performances and endear themselves to the staff. he and the other clients attend a sheltered workshop during the day where they engage in assembly-line work. here Hohn meets his girlfriend, Betsy, who lives with foster parents she seems to fear.
Sarah’s main support for her research project is Dr. William Montgomery, her attractive and inspirational professor who promotes her research and promises to help her publish it to jump-start her career. Sarah is at first flattered by his attention, but his overtures and reputation for bedding young doctoral students make it clear his support comes with a price. She discreetly pulls back only to find out later that he will withdraw his support when she needs him most.
At the group home Sarah and her student staff members labor to teach life skills to the men in their care. Jana and Barry, two of the “counselors” who work for sarah, are supportive and enthusiastic, learning to love clients’ quirkiness, but Micheal, a pot-smoking, rule-bender defies sarah’s authority and subtly undermines her work.
By now Sarah knows that Barry is attracted to her, she confines to him the anger she has toward her mother and sadness at never getting to know her disabled brother. With Barry encouragement she contacts her estranged father to see if she can learn more about her brother’s fate. She finds out that her mother used to visit her brother in Cal;ifornia, but when they moved to Oregon she said her son had died. Sarah’s dad also reveals that the father of Sarah’s brother is Sarah’s favorite great-uncle, Stan Cohen, who raped her mother at age 16. sarah is remorseful of the way she treated her mother. Barry is there to soothe her in her sorrow, finding his wayinto Sarah’s heart.
Barry points out to Sarah that her brother’s name, Jonathon Cohen, is similar to john Cohen and he encourages Sarah to investigate. Reviewing john’s records they discover that he is indeed Sarah’s brother. Sarah shows john a picture of her mother. john recognizes her as a frequent visitor from his past, Miss Richardson. Sarah explains to him that Miss Richardson is his mother and that she is his sister. John replaces his magazine picture of “mama” with his real family. John finds family belonging while sarah relinquishes her resentment as she forgives her mother and rejoices in finding her brother.