‘Juniper’ a harrowing, humorous story of a premature birth

“Tell me a story,” Juniper French asks her parents, “tell me about when I was a baby.”

This is her tale, “Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon,” a heartfelt, humorous tribute to her parents’ desperate fight for the salvation of a daughter born 24 weeks premature — the most vulnerable and least viable time a child can be born. This is a tale not only of parenthood but of the supreme love and dedication that it asks of those who wish to pursue it.

At the outset the story seems so simple: A couple meets, falls in love, gets married and tries to start their family — though the latter is much harder to obtain than the rest. There is no lack of obstacles. In a seamless back-and-forth narrative, authors and journalists Kelley and Thomas French share their arduous struggle to conceive, the personal strain of undergoing in vitro fertilization and their long climb toward parenthood, all to realize their long-held, cherished dream of a daughter.

For the lucky, this was the hardest part; for the Frenches it was only the beginning.

What follows is a candid chronicle of a parent’s worst nightmare — the Sisyphean task of keeping a premature child alive. Kelley undergoes a troublesome and complicated pregnancy, constantly bedridden and sick, then a stalled labor, and then the final terrifying, nearly fatal birth of “a glass shrimp” with skin so fragile that the beat of her heart was visible.

Baby Girl French had arrived, all 20 ounces of her.

Neither writer shies away from the questions no parent wants to ask themselves: Do they persist and save their daughter, despite the fact she might have long-lasting developmental delays; despite the fact she may hate them for it; despite the constant rollicking wave of risen-then-dashed hopes and the toll it would take on their marriage?

Although the answer is not simple, even for these Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, it is an unequivocal yes, a decision illustrated in a series of little, intricate moments. Kelley fills an iPod with womb noises to play for her daughter, to make her feel safe and loved; Thomas arrives every day to read “Harry Potter” to a baby drowning in wires and machinery, so she could hear his voice. They surrender their lives to a state of flux as every day presents new challenges to the survival of their daughter.

The authors take turns telling Juniper’s story in alternating chapters. The result is a compelling narrative that braids together the writers’ unique voices and perspectives. Kelley is admirable for her candor and honesty, but she also endears with her funny asides and all-too-human worries. Thomas is ever observant, level headed and thoughtful, ascribing significance to everyday events that might go unnoticed by others.

The natural rhythm of their storytelling speaks not only to the authors’ strengths as writers, but to the strength of their partnership as well. Where Kelley feels, Thomas reacts; where Thomas reflects, Kelley intuits. Theirs is a unified front, fortified by their indelible sense of humor, their ability to meet a challenge head-on and speak about it openly, and their love for their child, so fraught with problems.

In her struggle to survive, Juniper experiences extraordinary complications with basic body functions from her intestines and her lungs to her kidneys and her eyes. She endures innumerable surgeries and illnesses.

“She was perpetually dying, then not dying, then dying again. Slowly, we discovered that the only escape was to create a world for her beyond the box.”

The Frenches’ wit provides much light amid all the darkness. At one point, Kelley is told her daughter’s head might become shaped like a toaster because of the way her skull was developing. “If she ended up with a head like a kitchen appliance, well, kids look so great in hats,” she quips.

As Juniper grows, they dress her up in costumes like Harry Potter, Aretha Franklin. The story of her dark struggle is offset by the Frenches’ resistance to despair. And every ailment is rewarded with moments when Juniper grabs their finger, when she opens her eyes, survives another day, another surgery.

The book’s epigraph is a quote from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” about “unfashioned creatures, but half made up.” The reference conjures to mind images of a monster, something unnatural and inhuman. Neither of these ascriptions, however, apply. There is nothing monstrous about Juniper French, a baby created from love and cared for by parents who worked so hard to bring her into this world. Their dedication to her is staggering in its raw intensity. Despite the challenges, the weaknesses, the negatives of their experiences, the Frenches were going to wait for their daughter to come home with them, and the imperfection of their situation made them stronger for it. Indeed, had their story been without challenges, if Juniper was a fairytale child, perfect from birth, then there would not be as much meaning in the telling, for the fight itself inscribes greatness into the Frenches, and their daughter.

“A story is a promise … a promise that the end is worth waiting for.” That is Thomas’ much-uttered mantra, and Juniper proves it to be true. Their story is a remarkable account, a truly moving and indomitable work, and in giving all for their daughter, they reveal the best in themselves. At the close of the book, Juniper asks her parents to tell her a story. “Watch,” she says, “you might be mad, but this might be amazing.” And Juniper French is absolutely right.

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