To be honest, I think I was primarily looking for an easy, short book when I picked up Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte. I first saw it on NPR’s Best Books of 2020 List. I enjoy the occasional children’s novel, and the history of a deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard was intriguing, so I picked it up. My knowledge of Martha’s Vineyard is not great but I still feel some connection to it. We took a memorable family trip there with my whole family when I was a kid. I later saw Jaws, which was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard, and recognized some of the locations. Finally, the whaling industry depicted in Moby Dick was very important to the area around Martha’s Vineyard, and I did push myself through that novel about eight years ago. However, LeZotte shows a different side of Martha’s Vineyard that I hadn’t read about before.
Mary Lambert is growing up on a farm in Martha’s Vineyard in 1805. She is deaf and her father is deaf, but her mother can hear. There were a large community of deaf people on the island at the time, and they’d made up their own form of sign language. Her brother George, beloved by the whole family, was recently killed in a tragic accident. Mary blames herself for this, and she thinks her mother blames her, too. Mary believes that her mother wishes that she was killed instead of her brother. There are land disputes with the native Wampanoag people as well. The settlers claim their land was “sold” to them by the Wampanoag. Mary’s father generally supports the Wampanoag, but he is a minority in the settler community.
A young, ambitious scientist comes to town because he has heard of the sizable deaf community and wants to study them. He has a relation in town that gives him access to the locals. He travels about, taking soil samples and talking to families around the island. It’s an awkward affair when he shows up at Mary’s house. He ignores Mary and her father like they are unimportant and speaks only to her mother.
***SPOILERS***The book takes quite a turn when Mary is kidnapped by the scientist as a live “specimen” that the scientist brings back to Boston. He tells others that her parents gave him permission “to take her off their hands.” He beats her and threatens her. Mary is suddenly torn from a loving family and close-knit community to a place where she can communicate with no one and most people do not even see her humanity.
Fortunately, Mary is eventually rescued and reunited with her family. Perhaps a little too easily, all the problems with her mother are repaired. ***END SPOILERS***
I was impressed by this book. It was certainly age appropriate, but I learned some things about the history of Martha’s Vineyard that I didn’t know. It was interesting reading a book from the point of view of a deaf character. I also thought LeZotte did a good job contrasting the dehumanizing treatment of Mary with the dehumanizing treatment of the Wampanoag.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.