This was a really interesting read, but the ending left me unsatisfied. This is probably a book that a majority of the US population could stand to read for the topic alone, but for me, the story arc left just a little to be desired. I don’t necessarily need a happy ending, but I do need that feeling of completion you get with a well-told story, and I was missing that here, even if the book leading up to the ending was very well done and compelling.
Over six months of time, this book follows two deaf teenagers, Charlie and Austin, as well as a CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult) named February whose first language was ASL, and who is the headmistress of the River Valley School for the Deaf. Austin is a legacy, meaning his family going back over a hundred years is mostly deaf, and he has received a plethora of language and support, which is in contrast to Charlie, whose family implanted her with a (faulty) Cochlear Implant and didn’t let her learn sign language, and as a result, she is language deprived and behind in school, not to mention emotionally traumatized by being forced to fit into a world she can barely communicate in.
The events of the book begin at the start of the school year as Charlie enters the school for the first time, having to learn ASL and deaf culture all in one go. Austin is assigned to mentor her. He is fresh off a break-up with a mean girl, and has a new baby sister at home who is hearing, a big shock to everyone. And February’s mom has dementia and lives with she and her wife, Mel. Over six months we see the nuances of deaf culture through these characters. I learned a huge amount reading this book. And of course, it knows its audience is mostly going to be hearing, so the book is chock full of history lessons, and delicately illustrated ASL instructions and grammar lessons, which were fascinating.
A huge issue within the book is the topic of Cochlear Implants. I knew it was a thorny subject for deaf people, but I had no idea of the details, which when laid out like they are here, it’s hard to deny the problems. Aside from the defective units sold knowingly to families and implanted in the heads of young deaf children (as happened to Charlie in this book) it’s made clear that many, many families don’t let their children learn ASL because they want them to be “hearing” instead with their implants, the ableist culture influencing them to assume (or in some cases, they are actually told) that learning ASL will hurt a deaf child with an implant’s chances of learning English. Which is of course nonsense. How can learning a language hinder the learning of another language? If it did, we wouldn’t teach language in schools and encourage kids to be bilingual when possible. The real truth here, or “true biz”, is that the hearing world does not actually see ASL as a language, and it sees deaf people as defective rather than culturally rich in their own ways. SPOILERS That the school is set to close soon after this book ends is felt as a tragedy, because we see how Charlie has flourished when allowed to learn ASL and all she might stand to lose, and that other kids like her are losing right now, when she loses the safe, understanding environment of River Valley END SPOILERS.
Definitely would recommend this, but just know you’re not going to get any kind of happy ending here, or even much resolution for any of the storylines, happy or not.