The Suitcase is, according to the subtitle, “A Story about Giving.” And it is that, I suppose. But more than that, it’s a story about Thomas.
“He was maybe just a little bit different, this child named Thomas.”
Thomas doesn’t build with his blocks. He lines them up.
He spends hours spinning in circles and reciting the alphabet.
And he talks. He talks to the goats. He talks to his family. It seems that he really likes to talk.
Thomas struggles to listen. But he listens. And he hears more, perhaps, than others give him credit for.
And he takes what he hears quite literally. At church, he’s heard a lot about the Kingdom of God. He’s been planning to go there for a good, long time. He made a list of everything he’ll need on the way, gathered it up, and packed it all in a suitcase.
He’s ready to go.
His family – including the dog! – aren’t sure what to make of the suitcase. Thomas is usually such a predictable child. But this – nobody predicted this.
His daddy asks Thomas to show him what he packed. Thomas pulls out applesauce, to feed the hungry. A coin purse with all his money, to give to the poor. A tablecloth, in case he needs to entertain angels. Tape, because he talks too much. And lots more.
Nobody laughs at Thomas. They listen. They think before they respond. And Thomas’s daddy finally tells him that he doesn’t need to go anywhere, because he’s already in the Kingdom of Heaven. His good heart shows that.
But, his daddy continues, lots of people don’t know how to get there. Thomas’s sister wants to tell them. So they all put away the meal they were about to have, and they go serve a meal to others.
A Story about Acceptance
Jane G. Meyer made me love Thomas, and The Suitcase is best when it is focused on him. He’s a fascinating and delightful character. The book never says that he’s autistic, but I have a (now grown) autistic child. Thomas isn’t exactly like my child. But Thomas is clearly autistic.
I asked my autistic child to read The Suitcase with me. We both expected Thomas to struggle when his dad tells him he’s already in the Kingdom. Cognitive rigidity is real. Shifting gears is hard. A meltdown seemed like the obvious next event.
But Thomas easily accepted what he was told. He was amazed that he didn’t need his suitcase. Amazed, and apparently delighted.
And I found myself wondering how an autistic child could be so flexible. I wondered what allowed him to transition so easily.
Thomas and his family lived on a farm. Maybe that had something to do with it. There is space on a farm for Thomas to wander and to spin, there are animals to talk to.
And his family clearly loves him and accepts him just as he is. They’re okay with him lining up his blocks. They don’t ridicule him for thinking that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place you need to pack a suitcase to go. And there are no neighbors to give disapproving looks, to tell Thomas that he ought to be different, that he ought to be someone that he’s not.
I absolutely love that about the story. More than anything about giving, I love the way that it’s about acceptance.
And perhaps it’s because Thomas was in such a gentle environment, perhaps it’s because acceptance flowed over him like sunshine, perhaps that’s why Thomas avoided the anxiety that cripples so many people on the autism spectrum. Maybe without the anxiety, it’s easier for him to be flexible.
I know that was true, and still is, for my autistic child. If she’s less anxious, she’s less rigid, more capable, more willing to do new things.
A Story About an Autistic Child’s Search for the Kingdom of Heaven
At the very end, The Suitcase shifts, ever so slightly, from being a story about Thomas to being a story about giving.
I wish it hadn’t. I don’t care for books about virtues. Stories about being polite, or about honesty, just don’t work for me. I much prefer stories about children who struggle to be polite, or who learn the value of honesty.
And The Suitcase is mostly that sort of story, the sort that I prefer. Even though it’s about an autistic child’s search for the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s not overburdened with theological explanations of sin and salvation. Thomas is such a strong and endearing character that he carries his story with him through to the end.
The Art and Other Stuff
Chiara Pasqualotto’s water color illustrations are soft and lovely. If I didn’t love The Suitcase for Meyer’s story, I’d love it for Pasquallotto’s illustrations. They create a feeling of warmth and gentleness that suits the story perfectly.
The book includes, at the end, a page of “Resources for Grownups.” It provides encouragement for listening to children when they want to talk about big topics, like caring for the poor, and suggestions for engaging children in charitable work.
Maddi’s Fridge: A Review: When Sofia learns that her friend Maddi doesn’t have enough food at home, she struggles to figure out how to help.
Last Stop on Market Street: A Review: After church, a very grumpy CJ goes with his grandmother to the last stop on Market Street, where they serve meals to the poor.
St. John the Almsgiver: St. John the Almsgiver revered the poor. He served them, and gave to them, without giving any thought at all to their motives or their need.
Loving an Autistic Child at Church: The autistic children in your parish need your love and acceptance. So do their parents.