Novels like “The Sign for Home” are powerfully important reading experiences for many reasons. It’s often through reading that we are exposed to people whose lifestyles, culture, or religion are vastly different from ours. Author Blair Fell accomplishes that sometimes difficult task of introducing us to a community of DeafBlind in a seemingly effortless manner by relating the story of Arlo Dilly, a DeafBlind young man who lives with his guardian, an elder in Jehovah’s Witness. The story is told from a dual perspective: from Arlo’s point of view, and the point of view of Cyril, who is an ASL interpreter, and who ends up working with Arlo. It’s that experience that changes both their lives.
Through the very expressive narrative, we learn—to the extent any seeing/hearing person can—what it feels like to live unable to hear sounds, unable to see the world around you. As a DeafBlind person, Arlo is dependent on others to help him cross the street safely, to know that his ride has arrived, to know if he is in danger, even to find a bathroom. We also learn about the many adaptive devices that DeafBlind people use to help them live independent lives and communicate with those around them. Arlo has few of those devices because Brother Birch, his great-uncle, prefers to keep him dependent.
The two narratives are written so that we know instantly which person we are “hearing” from. Arlo’s narrative is written in second person, and while I usually do not care for such narratives, it works quite well in this story. Cyril’s narrative is in first person. Through both narratives, Fell shares their thoughts and feelings, and we are privy to their innermost secrets. It’s impossible to share the brilliance of the writing—the emotion, the insight, the heartbreaking plot—in a short review.
Arlo has his demons. We learn about those over the course of the novel as Fell takes us back to Arlo’s time in a school for the deaf where for the first time he made friends and fell in love. Fell opens our eyes to how people without vision or hearing “see” the world around them, how they fall in love, how they navigate. He shares perhaps more than we need to know about signing, including different types of signing like Protactile which helps to relay more information to the DeafBlind person than “simple” Tactile ASL, in which the DeafBlind person must feel the hands of the interpreter to understand what is being conveyed. We learn about the ethics involved in such translating. The interpreters are required to translate everything, without changing meaning or inserting their own thoughts or ideas.
Through Arlo and another character in the novel, we also are privy to the plight of many other-abled people — how in spite of the fact that such people might live independently, people who are DeafBlind or paraplegic and deaf might be warehoused, unable to access their rights or live anything like a normal life. In Arlo’s case, his guardian purposely keeps Arlo dependent through lies and manipulation and religious threats. Cyril must decide how involved he should be in helping Arlo. It’s quite a dilemma because technically Cyril is limited to just translating, not opening Arlo’s mind to possibilities.
Fell explains how a deaf child growing up in a household where the parents don’t know ASL, and therefore can’t teach the child communication skills, is deprived of the ability to communicate and learn language. Arlo, for example, first attends school at the age of 13. He must learn ASL. Cyril is interpreting as Arlo takes an English class, and it’s very instructive to see that for deaf people, writing in English is really like a second language. At one point, Fell shares that being fluent in ASL does not mean that the ASL “speaker” will be able to write fluently in English. Arlo’s teacher at first can’t believe that he is an intelligent person because of the quality of his writing. We see how Arlo convinces her that he is, indeed, both articulate and intelligent, and those interactions open our eyes as well to the challenges people like Arlo face in making their wishes and ideas understood. Arlo’s intelligence and his determination are a wonder to read about. Be warned, reading this novel will cause you to experience many emotions from indignation to horror to heartbreak. But ultimately, it’s a story of the power of love—not just romantic love but the love that evolves from friendship. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s powerfully told.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.