Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1730
Cynthia Lord’s children’s novel Rules begins with the central character Catherine, age twelve, babysitting her eight-year-old brother David on the first day of summer vacation. We soon learn that babysitting David is a common task for Catherine, as David is autistic and must be watched closely at all times. Catherine constantly makes up rules for her brother, such as “if someone says ‘hi,’ you say ‘hi’ back,” and “no toys in the fish tank,” to try to help her brother behave more normally. Throughout the novel, one of these “rules” heads each chapter, and more are scattered throughout the text; we also learn that Catherine writes all the “rules” down at the back of the sketchbook she carries everywhere.
On the first day of summer vacation, Catherine is watching the movers unload her new neighbors’ belongings at the house next door. She is excited because the house’s previous owner told her the new neighbors have a twelve-year-old girl. Catherine, whose best friend Melissa spends the entire summer out of town with her dad, is eager to meet the potential new friend next door. Before the neighbors arrive, however, it is time for David’s Occupational Therapy session—or OT, as the family calls it—and Catherine accompanies her mother and brother. Catherine explains that she always tags along because while David is in OT, she gets her mother’s full attention, which is a rare commodity for her.
After therapy, the three return home—David and Catherine’s father is due home at five to take David to the video store, his favorite place.David, who clings to rules and exact statements such as “Dad will be home at five,” waits on the porch and counts down the seconds until his father arrives; Catherine, on the other hand, has long since stopped expecting her father to be on time. When their dad is in fact late, David begins to scream; the neighbor girl happens to be outside her house and notices. She asks “Is he okay?” then heads back inside without introducing herself or asking Catherine’s name. Catherine is dismayed that her first interaction with the neighbor, like most events in Catherine’s life, has centered on her unusual little brother.
At the clinic where David attends therapy, Catherine draws a picture of another boy in the waiting room, Jason Morehouse, whom she estimates to be about fourteen or fifteen. Jason is confined to a wheelchair and, while he can understand others’ speech, he himself can only communicate by pointing at cards containing a word and matching picture. Jason’s mother notices Catherine drawing him and becomes upset, but Jason intervenes, telling her he likes the picture, and Catherine gives it to him. At the next therapy session, Mrs. Morehouse tells Catherine that Jason has the picture on his bedroom wall. In response, Catherine begins to consider Jason’s situation, wondering what it would like to “have to wait for someone to make a word” before she could use it. Catherine offers to make some new word cards for Jason, and she takes some blank cards home with her.
Catherine makes words Jason can truly express himself with, like “Gross!” “Awesome!” and “Stinks a big one!” Jason is thrilled. Catherine takes an entire stack of blank cards to make more words, and she begins to collect words for the cards in her sketchbook. She finds herself writing words that reflect whatever she is feeling at the moment—for example, when she resents having to babysit David yet again, she writes “Yeah, right” and “whatever.”
Finally, the new neighbor, Kristi, comes over to visit Catherine. However, Catherine’s mom is working at home and asks her to watch David a little longer. Catherine is furious and terrified that David’s antics will ruin her potential new friendship. Sure enough, David becomes distraught because the tape has come unwound from one of his audio cassettes, and when Catherine’s guinea pigs start to squeal, David progresses to all-out shrieking. Kristi sympathizes, saying that even “regular” little brothers are difficult to deal with, and Catherine feels the word regular “snarling” in her stomach.
Soon after this visit, David and Catherine arrive home from therapy to see Kristi and a neighborhood boy, Ryan, playing basketball. Ryan has previously called David a “retard,” and when David runs over to the two, Catherine follows. David asks if he can “have a turn” when he really means he wants a piece of gum, and David mocks him and gives him an empty gum wrapper. Catherine screams that Ryan’s a “jerk,” but to her dismay, Kristi goes back inside with Ryan. Following this incident, Catherine again expresses herself through the word cards, making words like “unfair” “cruel” “hate” and “ruined.”
However, when it comes time to share these new words with Jason, Catherine worries that he will think she is selfish for indulging her own hurt when people like Jason and David have it so much worse. She tries to hold back the words, explaining she was upset when she wrote them, but Jason insists that he wants them, and Catherine shares the words as well as the story of what happened. Rather than thinking she is selfish, Jason empathizes with Catherine and confides that he has similar emotions—he says, “Sometimes. I. Wish. Die.” and that he feels “Incomplete.” Catherine replies that she also feels incomplete, split in half—half of her wants to be a “regular person” with her friends, but the other half is afraid to leave David, who cannot take care of himself.
Jason says he sometimes dreams he can run, and he wishes he knew what running felt like; when Catherine describes the sensation, Jason begs her to take him for a run outside. Catherine does so, running as fast as she can while pushing the wheelchair, and both she and Jason experience a moment of euphoria. Catherine realizes people are staring at them, but she finds she does not care.
Meanwhile, as the days pass, Catherine continues to hang out with Kristi. Kristi sees a picture of Jason in Catherine’s sketchbook, and she assumes that Jason is Catherine’s boyfriend but does not realize he uses a wheelchair. Kristi invites Catherine to a dance at the local community center, adding that she is going with Ryan and that Catherine should bring Jason. Catherine, embarrassed by both her lack of dancing ability and Jason’s condition, is noncommittal.
Catherine returns to therapy to discover Jason has a new motorized wheelchair and no longer has to be pushed around. Jason asks Catherine to go for a walk outside the clinic with him, and they head down to the wharf, where Catherine sees Kristi. Catherine hides behind a bench to avoid being spotted by Kristi, but Jason does not realize what she is doing. Jason then invites Catherine to his birthday party, which is the same day as the community dance, and she accepts. Catherine has mentioned her friend Kristi to Jason, and Jason says Kristi can come to the party as well—but Catherine, embarrassed, does not mention the party to Kristi.
Before the party, Catherine makes new words for Jason, inspired by their walk together—“wharf,” “seagull,” “park”—and brings them to the clinic. For the word “Together,” Catherine draws two people on a bench, neither in a wheelchair, and Jason becomes upset upon seeing the picture. Catherine tells Jason she imagined him without his wheelchair, like in his dream where he can run, but Jason remains hurt.
Catherine next sees Jason at his birthday party, where she brings a new “together” card with a picture of herself on a bench and Jason in a wheelchair. She also gives Jason a used guitar she bought with her own money, and he is thrilled. But then Jason mentions it is too bad that Kristi could not come, and Catherine says Kristi’s too busy getting ready for the community center dance. Jason asks Catherine to the dance with him, and Catherine says she cannot go; in response, Jason asks if she is embarrassed to be seen with him. Catherine denies his accusation, saying she is embarrassed by her own lack of dancing ability. She explains that she is such a terrible dancer, she even has a rule against it: “No dancing unless I’m alone in my room or it’s pitch-black dark.” Jason replies that her rule is a “Stupid. Excuse.” and Catherine runs out of the party, crying.
After the party, Catherine tells her mom that she simply hates the way people act when she is with Jason or David and that she knows they are wondering what is wrong or thinking, “I’m glad that’s not me.” Her mother replies that just because people think a certain way, “that doesn’t make it true.” Motivated by her mother’s statement, Catherine calls Jason, but he will not talk to her. So Catherine tells Mrs. Morehouse she is inviting him to the dance, and she will be there in an hour to meet him. Next, Catherine calls her father at work, demanding that he go buy David a new cassette player that will not break his tapes, then come home and take her to the dance. When her father starts to make an excuse, she insists that “We matter, too!”
Catherine’s father does drive her to the dance, and to her relief, Jason finally arrives. They go outside to talk, where Catherine explains that she did not tell Kristi the truth about Jason because she was worried what Kristi “might think of me, not you.” Kristi and Ryan come up to the two, and Catherine introduces them to Jason. As they head back inside, Jason tells Catherine to “Break. Dance. Rule.”—and she does.
After Catherine and Jason have danced the night away, the novel ends with Catherine once again watching her brother David. They kneel beside each other, arms touching, faces side by side, and Catherine tells the reader, “I let that be enough.” Catherine realizes her relationship with her brother—like her relationship with Jason—will never be perfect and will never fit the world’s definition of “normal.” But she chooses to accept their relationship as it is, to let the connection and love they share be “enough” to satisfy her.