Writing in free verse, author Helen Frost relates the absorbing, achingly painful, yet encouraging and joyful story of Henry, a boy who becomes deaf at a young age but is able to speak. Intelligent and full of life, Henry eventually becomes wary of strangers and refuses to speak to them. Then he wonders, “Do people think / if they don’t hear me talk, / that means I don’t have / thoughts?”
In 1939, when Henry is 6 years old, his parents must decide where to send him to school. They want to send him to the State School for the Deaf where they hope he will receive a good education. But plans go awry when Henry is deemed “unteachable” and, instead, he is sent to Riverview Home for the Feebleminded.
Despite Riverview’s horrific atmosphere—excessive punishment of students, crippling routine, boredom, and isolation—Henry makes friends, being supported and offering care in return. Henry is one of the lucky boys because his family, though poor, does all they can to save money to visit him once a year. As Frost so poignantly writes, “Henry is the constant undercurrent / of their lives. / Even when they can’t go see him, / whether or not / they talk about him, Henry / is the glue / that holds their family / together.”
Henry’s life changes dramatically when, in 1942, Victor, a conscientious objector (CO) to World War II, arrives at Riverview as part of a Civilian Public Service program. Dedicated to a life of non-violence, Victor abhors the way Riverview staff treat the boys. Slowly, as staff are called up for military duty and leave the institution, more COs join Victor, and Riverview’s culture improves.
Victor sees in Henry a bright and precocious child, and the man and boy form a deep bond, leading to Henry’s release from the institution, his return home, and the formation of a loving community of family and friends.
Loosely based on the life of Helen Frost’s mother-in-law’s brother, this compelling book for middle school readers portrays an inquisitive, intelligent protagonist with a sensitive, justice-seeking heart who wants to keep on learning how to read and write so that “someday I’ll tell people what that place / is like. It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)