Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Summary: 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 penetrating and poignant novel that probes our perceptions of ability and disability.
The history of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language has fascinated me ever since I first devoured Nora Groce’s seminal ethnography Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Harvard University Press). Not only was MVSL one of the building blocks of American Sign Language, but the history of Martha’s Vineyard showed a wonderful example of what can happen when everyone has equal access to communication.
Ann Clare LeZotte brings the island community to life, and – no doubt because she is a Deaf ASL user herself – sidesteps the awkwardness that hearing authors often bring to showing signed interactions on the page. The result is a story that flows as naturally as the signs off the hands of deaf and hearing islanders alike – a story of a tight-knit community where everyone is valued, and the intrusion of the outside hearing world that only sees deaf islanders as specimens to study. LeZotte managed to incorporate lots of historical information – about the history of the island, about the early history of deaf education in America, about sign languages themselves – without ever letting the facts overwhelm the story and characters. What impressed me most, though, was the way the author wove in marginalized voices that, in most historical fiction like this, would have been overlooked – the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, the black freedmen on the island, the fact that the early schools for the deaf were segregated. This too, is done with a deft touch, as protagonist Mary reckons with the way the larger hearing world views her and her community, and learns how her own people have marginalized others. Anyone who dismisses this book as “niche” is missing out – in fact, it’s a big-hearted adventure and family story that will provoke reflections and discussions about intersectionality from writers and readers alike.
As an ASL interpreter, librarian, and book reviewer, I have reviewed a LOT of books about ASL and Deaf Culture over the years. There have been a lot of “well, at least now there’s a book on this topic….better than nothing, I guess.” So to have this book to recommend, that’s THIS good, AND by a Deaf author…all I can say is:
I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
SHOW ME A SIGN is out now.
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