This slow burn of a historical fiction middle grade book kept me up reading well past my bedtime. The characters, the culture, and the history all came alive!
Deaf author and librarian Ann Clare LeZotte weaves an Own Voices story inspired by the true history of a thriving deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 19th century.
Mary Lambert has always felt safe and protected on her beloved island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her great-grandfather was an early English settler and the first deaf islander. Now, over a hundred years later, many people there – including Mary – are deaf, and nearly everyone can communicate in sign language. Mary has never felt isolated. She is proud of her lineage.
But recent events have delivered winds of change. Mary’s brother died, leaving her family shattered. Tensions over land disputes are mounting between English settlers and the Wampanoag people. And a cunning young scientist has arrived, hoping to discover the origin of the island’s prevalent deafness. His maniacal drive to find answers soon renders Mary a “live specimen” in a cruel experiment. Her struggle to save herself is at the core of this novel. from Goodreads.
When I was training to become a Sign Language interpreter I was fascinated to learn that American Sign Language became a language through a mingling of French Sign Language, Native American Sign Language, home signs and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. This is because there was such a large population of Deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard that the whole Island signed, whether they were hearing or deaf. Unlike the rest of the country, being Deaf wasn’t seen as a limitation. This book, Show Me a Sign is both about this remarkable island’s history and an extraordinary girl named Mary.
Martha’s Vineyard may be fascinating but it has a complicated history. Not only did deaf and hearing live side by side but there were also Wampanoag Native Americans, settlers, immigrants, and freed slaves. Mary’s family had been on the island for generations, with her great-great-grandfather as one of the first deaf settlers but recent disagreements between Vineyarders and Wampanoag have the people on edge. And Mary’s family is dealing with their own private nightmare, the death of Mary’s older brother George.
The disagreements between the Native people and the sadness over George’s death were the emphasis of the first half of the book. As Mary wanders around her Island clothed in sadness she finds her attention diverted by a visitor, Andrew, who comes to the Island curious about the deafness prevalent on the Island. Andrew indeed takes Mary as a “live specimen” and the remainder of story are a harrowing tale of Mary’s attempts to free herself from Andrew’s control and return safely to her home.
Truthfully, the first half of the book felt a bit slow. But I think that was purposeful. Before Andrew’s arrival on the Island Mary’s life was very set. And, of course, to someone with no background in ASL or experience in the Deaf Community, this might be a peek into a new world. Either way, Andrew’s arrival was both a relief to Mary and myself. The author, Ann Clare LeZotte, does a wonderful job drawing the everyday life of an eleven year old girl in this time as her chores, obligations, church visits, and friendships formed her whole world. Andrew, unacquainted with Deaf culture and unable to sign must rely on an interpreter to speak with the people of the Island. His questions display his lack of knowledge of the Deaf people and his rude theories about the prevalence of deafness on the Island. But when he takes Mary, the reality of how different Mary’s life is on her Island from the rest of the world comes at Mary full speed.
I believe that we view the world with the collective knowledge of our experiences – firsthand experiences as well as secondhand. Mary grew up with a Deaf father, a hearing mother, a hearing brother, and a rich community of people surrounding her. Mary’s mother favored George but Mary assumed it was because they were both hearing. Similarly, there were people on the Island who didn’t view Native Americans as worthy of entering their homes and ranked Irish people under the English but above the freed slaves. Mary knew what a house looked like after a family member had died. All of this information children absorb and it changes how they perceive the world. But Mary had something not all children possess, pride in who she was and that made her strong.
I sat down with this book intending to read a few chapters but I could not put it down. For anyone interested in Deaf culture and history, or who just wants to read a thrilling tale with a strong female character, this is a perfect choice!
I read this book for Believathon 3 for the clue of the Backpack and the prompt was to read a book by a new-to-me author. Ann Clare LeZotte is new to me but I will be on the look for more books by this author! I have heard that she is working on a follow up to Show Me a Sign!
Tell me, please! What’s the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?