Frances Itani’s Deafening traces the intersections of language, communication and understanding through the disparate experiences of a young deaf girl growing up in small-town Ontario and a stretcher bearer on the Western front.
In the first part of the book, we travel with Grania O’Neill through her silent world. Left deaf by scarlet fever at age 5, Grania’s family shelters her from the hearing world. Her grandmother teaches her to speak and to read lips. She and her sister make up their own language with their hands. Her mother reluctantly agrees to send her at age 9 to the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. (The school was renamed the Ontario School for the Deaf in 1913.) There she learns to sign and to speak, as well as receiving vocational training.
Grania works in the school infirmary when she graduates. There she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who assists the town doctor. Weeks after they marry, he enlists as a stretcher bearer. The novel then moves back and forth for the duration of the war, from Jim’s living hell on the Western front to Grania’s vigil on the home front.
Itani’s lean and graceful prose evokes the blessings and curses of sound and silence. She delves into the early 20C politics of communications by and with those who cannot hear. We see how touch and sight are as much a part of communication and understanding. How understanding can precede or follow information. How a man who is constantly singing and a woman who can never hear can connect and learn from each other.
Grania must pay attention every second, every minute. If she doesn’t, people will think she’s stupid. She has to be ready all the time.
Ready? For what?
To break through the silence.
But the silence also protects. Grania knows. Being inside the the silence is like being under water. Only when she wants to surface, only then does she come to the top. (p xiv)
“You’re canny, Jimmy boy. Canny will get you through.”
“Canny? I don’t think so. But I do things. I take measures―to hold things at bay. … You know. A chant under the breath, a line from a song. … Sometimes I say―fast―to myself: Infirtaris, Inoaknonis, Inmudeelsis, Inclaynonis.”
Irish laughed so hard he could scarely speak. “Tell me again.”
Jim repeated the verse, faster this time. “It’s supposed to sound like Latin. My grandmother taught me. She said it came from the time of Henry VI. It’s nonsense. But it helps if I say it in the noise of the guns, when we’re trying to get a carry out of a tight spot.” (p 327)
Speaking at the Canadian Literature of World War One conference in Ottawa in Aug 2014, Itani described the writer as a witness who bears an obligation to honour the subject matter. In writing Deafening and its sequel, Tell, she became a witness to the war. She studied diaries, albums, photos, catalogs, battlefield guides. The sheer numbers are difficult to take in. But for the novelist, war is about one person. Her story offers new understanding.
Note to Vicki … there are drive sheds in Grania’s home of Deseronto.
Note to other readers … is drive shed a term unique to Ontario, or do they exist elsewhere?
Read my interview with author Frances Itani.