All He Knew

Written by Helen Frost
Review by Valerie Adolph

The setting of this narrative is a small town and an institution in the United States during the period 1933–1945, the first twelve years of Henry’s life. For his first few years, Henry develops normally, but a bout of measles leaves him deaf. Too afraid to take the “intelligence test,” Henry is not permitted to attend the School for the Deaf. Instead he is sent to an institution for the feeble-minded.

In this forbidding building the attendants are male, some kindly, but most are carelessly cruel, often verging on the sadistic. Punishment means being tied to a chair, often for days. In spite of both this and of being unable to hear or to speak intelligibly, Henry makes two friends: little Billy, whose intelligence is limited, and the bigger and stronger Ted, who undergoes severe punishment. Billy becomes ill, dies, and is buried in a grave marked only by a number.

Some relief comes when many regular attendants are called for military service and their places are taken by conscientious objectors. One of these, Victor, does his best to understand and help Henry.

What lifts this narrative from the level of a simple tale is the sophistication of the presentation. Explained in the Author’s Notes on Form and Characters, this is written in free verse, with lines and stanzas arranged on the page differently from one individual poem to another. Poems telling Victor’s story are variations of the sonnet form.

This extensive use of poetic forms within narration works remarkably well to reveal the purpose and depth of feeling of this story. It is a moving tribute to those whose sound and perhaps even exceptional minds have been suppressed by the uneducated judgements of those who were deemed to know better.