by Ann Clare Le Zotte
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
11-year-old Mary Lambert is growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805, the height of the famous Deaf society there. Her friends and neighbors are all bilingual, it seems, and town meetings are conducted in both Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) and English. Mary can read and write in English, but not read lips, and her main language of communication is MVSL, which was a precursor to American Sign Language (ASL).
Mary’s family is still reeling from the loss of her beloved older brother, George, in a horsecart accident 8 months before. Mary is blissfully unaware that Deafness is highly misunderstood in much of the rest of the world, at least until a stranger comes to research her community. [Spoiler alert] At first the stranger seems benign, but then he abruptly kidnaps Mary and sails with her to Boston, where he keeps her as a domestic slave and a research subject. Mary is able to escape and return to home to her parents, who are beside themselves. She is certainly traumatized by the physical abuse she endures, but the major effects soon wane and she and her family are able to start to heal.
I give away the plot because it takes a while to get there, and without it, the plot is a bit slow. I thought the whole story was about her life on the island and her family’s loss of George, which is cool and all, but once this plot started, it really picked up and Mary became more interesting as a character. I loved her growth over the course of the story. The author’s note at the end explains more about the community and why the author chose to portray some signed dialogue in the grammar and motions of MVSL but the majority of the signed dialogue in English grammar, and I agree with her that it was just enough to get a feel for how it works without distracting too much from the story. The historical details were also great – I had no idea it would take 10 days to sail from the Vineyard around Cape Cod to Boston! These days it’s just 45 minutes by high-speed ferry from Woods Hole. This is also a great local historical fiction book for those in New England!