Huberta Hellendoorn

The Madonna in the Suitcase  (2009) is a memoir about Huberta's daughter Miriam who in 1962 was born with Down syndrome. Miriam's  paintings were in much demand before she had a stroke at the end of 2001. 

Huberta writes about the hardships inherent in raising a child with special needs but also wants to show the joys and triumphs Miriam's life has brought to them.


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Huberta Hellendoorn's book tells the story of a young married couple, Dutch immigrants newly arrived in New Zealand, whose first child, Miriam, is born with Down syndrome. Rather than being sad or negative, the book clearly demonstrates how their daughter is embraced into the family with love and optimism. While this book courageously depicts the hardships inherent in raising a child with special needs, it also celebrates the joys and the triumphs.

Miriam's emergence as an artist is supported by her family, teachers and friends and her talent is acknowledged and fostered. Further, Miriam is depicted as a child and then a young woman of courage and determination and with a sense of humour and an enormous capacity for empathy and sensitivity. She is both loved and loving.

This is an extraordinary story told with insight and elegance. Huberta is a published – and a very talented – writer. The book is carefully crafted; written without sentimentality but with attention to detail and language. The stylistic device Huberta uses – the book is written as an address, or letter, to her daughter – engages the reader so that they share and are involved in the experiences.

The book, while appealing also to the general reader, would provide inspiration to any family raising a special child. It would also give hope and comfort to families of stroke victims.

This is a story of grace, inspiration and hope. A story of courage, determination and celebration of creativity, as well as a valuable and rewarding resource for families caring for a child with special needs and all professionals working with people who have a disability.

Paddy Richardson, 1997 Burns Fellow, University of Otago

The Madonna in the Suitcase is the heart-warming and heart-rending story of Miriam, a woman born more than 40 years ago with an extra chromosome. It is a story of parental love and devotion, and one which demonstrates the wonderful benefits to any child given the commitment which flows from such love and devotion. In our hearts we know that no child can reach its full potential, whether personally, emotionally or intellectually, if he or she is not brought up by parents who make such a commitment, and that there is no equally effective substitute. There is now overwhelming medical evidence to support this claim. Miriam did achieve supported independence and success as an artist, to a degree beyond the expectations of society in general if not those of her family and persons who knew her well, until the occurrence of a serious and unexpected illness which left her permanently disabled.
To read and study this story would help medical and nursing students better to understand persons like Miriam, and to appreciate the challenges they and their families face to gain acceptance and independence within our society.
David Stewart
Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Health Sciences (Retired)
University of Otago
May, 2008

Huberta