I have always been fascinated with American Sign Language. There is something beautiful and graceful about the emotion shown through the hands and the expressive faces of the signers. But what would it be like to have deaf parents? What would it be like to live as a hearing person in a deaf world? Delia Ray, who brought us the moving Ghost Girl last year, now turns her narrative gifts to the story of Gussie Davis, the hearing daughter of deaf parents. Ray, whose mother was raised by deaf parents, has obviously given a lot of thought to this special kind of life.
Gussie is the middle daughter, a preacher's kid growing up in Birmingham in 1948. She wants to be a godly girl, as her father and mother think she is, but Gussie just can't pull it off. Whether she secretly hums during the church service, jealously notices every unfair advantage her perfect older sister Margaret holds over her, or is angry when her father leaves to work as a missionary to deaf communities all over the South, Gussie has a hard time doing the right thing.
It is a rare story in which all the characters are so richly drawn. The three sisters have real emotions, including deep sibling rivalry for the love of their beloved, but often absent, father. Mrs. Davis works nonstop to keep the church running smoothly, the family's boarding house clean and her daughters in line. Even the boarders have complicated lives. There is also much rich back matter: Birmingham in the 1940s is a city of Jim Crow and sharply divided social classes; deaf people are objects of fascination and not considered full citizens; and to be black and deaf is more than most people can overcome. This is also a time of debate in deaf education: Can deaf people ever fully integrate into the hearing world if they communicate mainly with sign language? On so many levels, Delia Ray's story is an honest yet humorous look at a complicated time. Gussie and her sisters are characters who will stay with the reader for a long time.