By Lyndee Johns
“The thing that is sort of funny about this is that anybody that knows me knows I’m terrified of dogs,” says assistant professor Dr. Corinna Tanner.
Considering her role in Terry Lynn Johnson’s book Dog Driven, the statement is truly ironic.
Dog Driven tells the story of Mckenna Barney, a fourteen-year-old musher who decides to participate in a Canadian sled-dog race carrying a very important piece of mail—her sister’s letter about raising awareness for Stargardt disease. The holdup? Mckenna has been losing her vision to the same disease for the last year, and desperately trying to keep her vision loss from her family and her peers. During the perilous race, Mckenna makes important self-discoveries. “It’s about her journey of grappling with this disability and having the courage to tell people about it, and having the courage to be okay with it,” says Tanner, who has Stargardt’s herself.
While Tanner has, in her words, “perfect peripheral vision,” the disease has affected her central vision—rendering her completely blind in that area.
One of the challenges that comes with Stargardt’s is that recognizing people tends to be very difficult. “And so that makes social situations really awkward and challenging sometimes because you can’t tell the difference between people . . . And in a high school setting where the halls are crowded and you don’t know very many people, it’s very, very intimidating because you can’t tell who people are . . . It can be very socially isolating, and so she captured some of that challenge in the book,” Tanner says.
In 2017, Johnson connected with Tanner though an online blindness support group, asking whether Tanner would be interested in being interviewed. Tanner met with Johnson for interviews over the next five to six months. Johnson asked about Tanner’s experience with Stargardt disease, especially about her experiences as a teenager. Some of these memories, such as Tanner having to move closer and closer to the chalkboard until she had to stand directly in front of it to be able to read it, are included in the book. “But one thing that came out of the interviews that she said she really wanted to capture was my positive attitude about blindness, about my acceptance of blindness. She wanted her character to have that same kind of acceptance and positivity around her disability,” Tanner says.
When Tanner listened to the book the first time, she found herself getting so caught up in the story’s plot and adventure that she actually forgot that she had inspired many of Mckenna’s experiences. “Hearing her experience about what she could see, what she couldn’t see, and how she did it, I was like ‘Oh, that’s just like me,’” Tanner says. “And I was like ‘That is me!’’’
Tanner describes the main character Mckenna as a combination between herself and Johnson, who has experience with dog-sledding and lives in Canada. But Tanner says that she could take from Mckenna’s example of overcoming fear by applying it towards her own fear of dogs.
While some moments of the book are taken directly from Tanner’s experiences, there are some differences. While in the book Mckenna’s little sister gets the disease first, Tanner says that it was the opposite for her. “In my case, I got it first . . . then my younger sister did develop Stargardt’s too, and hers was more severe than mine . . . [Johnson] just kind of flipped the story a little bit.”
Tanner also had a slightly different method of coping with her vision loss growing up. “I don’t think I was actively trying to hide it as much as this character was as just trying to suck it up and tough it out, because my parents were busy.”
When Tanner at first noticed problems with her eyesight, she’d chalked it up to needing glasses. And as her mother had her hands full with trying to raise seven young children and caring for a developmentally delayed uncle, it took a year—and a school vision screening test—to find out what was really going on.
Standing in front of volunteer moms and her classmates, the only letter that Tanner could make out on the chart was the gigantic letter E. “And the moms thought I was just being a smart aleck. They thought I was trying to be funny, and the kids thought I was trying to be funny too. So everybody was laughing. And I ran out of the school crying,” Tanner says. The incident led to a trip to the eye doctor, and an eventual diagnosis of Stargardt disease.
Tanner has three main messages that readers should take away from Dog Driven:
- “It’s respectable to be blind.”
- “Blind people can do most things sighted people can do, but they do it in a different way.”
- “Sometimes blind people don’t look blind.”
“It’s important to think about the fact that if someone had known—if any of the adults in her life had known—about her vision impairment, she likely would not have been permitted to join the race,” Tanner says. “And that’s unfortunate. I feel like children with disabilities and people with disabilities are frequently held back from reaching their full potential out of concern for their safety, which is valid, but on the other hand, there is spiritual and psychological and emotional safety too that are important to be considered . . . She could have gotten hurt on the trail, but so could any of the other mushers.”
One line from the book still stands out to Tanner—particularly because it is her own. In Dog Driven, one of Mckenna’s opponents has a lead dog, Zesty, who is visually impaired. However, Zesty is the most hardworking and focused dog on the team. Near the end of the book, Mckenna comes to an earthshaking conclusion: “Zesty is not disabled. Her differences make her better.”1
And that’s what Tanner takes away from it all: “My blindness hasn’t made me disabled. In the end, it’s made me better.”
- Terry Lynn Johnson, Dog Driven (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 242.