Born into a large Irish family in Canada, Grania O’Neill has been deaf since childhood due to scarlet fever. Her loving grandmother Mamo teaches her to speak and regain the language she lost, while she creates a secret sign language with her older sister and her mother looks on, blaming herself for Grania’s deafness. Mamo eventually insists that Grania be sent away to a deaf school. She comes into her own there, staying on after graduation to work as a nurse’s aide in the infirmary. And she meets Jim, a hearing man, and the two fall in love, with only a short time together before Jim goes off to the Great War to serve with the ambulance corps.
Itani tells an absorbing story, alternating Grania’s life at home waiting for Jim with Jim’s experiences at the front (which recall, without imitating, the verisimilitude of All Quiet on the Western Front). Even knowing the war will end, Grania’s anguish and anxiety of waiting is so fully in the moment that I grieved along with her. Her relationship with Jim is made the more touching by its understated equality. Itani doesn’t make Jim a saint who sets out to rescue a deaf girl; rather, he falls in love with this particular girl and wants to understand what it’s like to live in her world.
More is made of Grania’s home life before and after school, but the brief snapshot of her life at school is fascinating. The conflict between speaking and signing is brought to the fore, as Grania is better at speaking while her best friend Fry is better at signing. Chapters are prefaced with actual excerpts from The Canadian, the newspaper of the Ontario School for the Deaf. Not a moment rings false. This is a beautiful book.