A Hearing Heart, by Bonnie Dee

12 Sep

A Hearing Heart, by Bonnie Dee

Just shy of two hundred pages, set in a small town in Nebraska at the turn of the twentieth century, A Hearing Heart is a very moving story. From the setting to the issues it touches on, A Hearing Heart is definitely worth reading.

Here is the blurb:

The heart conveys messages beyond what ears can hear.

After the death of her fiancé, Catherine Johnson, a New York schoolteacher in 1901, travels to Nebraska to teach a one-room school and escape her sad memories. One afternoon, violence erupts in the sleepy town. Catherine saves deaf stable hand, Jim Kinney, from torture by drunken thugs.

As she takes charge of his education, teaching him to read and sign, attraction grows between them. The warmth and humor in this silent man transcends the need for speech and his eyes tell her all she needs to know about his feelings for her. But the obstacles of class difference and the stigma of his handicap are almost insurmountable barriers to their growing attachment.

Will Catherine flout society’s rules and allow herself to love again? Can Jim make his way out of poverty as a deaf man in a hearing world? And together will they beat the corrupt robber baron who has a stranglehold on the town?

As the story begins, the sleepy town of Broughton is poised for change. With the arrival of the mill’s new owner, a number of rough characters are about, as Jim and Catherine have the misfortune to learn first hand when three of these attack him and she intervenes, saving his life. Even though Catherine has been in town for a few months by this time, this is the first time these two have any contact.

The story is told from both Catherine and Jim’s points of view, and Ms Dee does a wonderful job of showing us the very real obstacles between them, given the setting and period. I confess that I would have been just as happy if the corrupt robber baron (is there any other kind, I wonder?) hadn’t existed.

At twenty-two, and deaf since birth, Jim works mainly as a hand at the livery stable, but he also sweeps floors and buses tables at the town’s saloon, as well as taking on odds jobs from time to time. While he is intelligent—as both his regular bosses have reason to know—his inability to speak and the fact that he cannot read mean that his prospects are severely limited. In addition, in the eyes of most of the town, he is not only low in the social hierarchy, but also considered a simpleton.

For her part, Catherine occupies an important if relatively subservient position in the town. She is the teacher, college educated “back East” and clearly of a wealthy family. At the same time, in a one-room school town, she is dependent on the school board’s good will. Maintaining a spotless reputation is paramount to keeping her position. It is true, of course, that she can go back home to her parents if things do not work out, but for her that is not a viable option.

I love how realistic Ms Dee makes the meeting of these two different worlds. In a sharp contrast to many a romance, neither Jim nor Catherine were carrying torches for each other. Until the commotion at the beginning, they were strangers and neither had any interest in becoming anything more than that. Catherine “had never given the young man who worked at the livery a moment’s thought. Why would she when his world and hers never crossed?” while Jim realizes that “until today, she’d been no more than a fleeting glimpse of passing beauty to him.”

This makes sense, this is believable, plausible—this is in fact what happens all the time all around us. We cross paths with a number of people every day, without stopping to think about them, simply because we have no reason to do so.

For those of us who have read Catherine Anderson’s Annie’s Song, one of the most striking differences between these two stories dealing with deaf individuals in a society that, almost without exception, equated the ability to hear and speak with intelligence, is the marked differences between Annie and Jim—and no, I don’t mean because one is female and the other, male.

Contrary to Annie, Jim’s background is not one of privilege—quite the opposite. Orphaned as a young teenager, he was already earning his keep long before his mother’s death. He has very little—if any—innocence left. For example, while he appreciates that both Mr. Murdoch at the saloon and Mr. Rasmussen at the livery know he is not simple, he also knows that they both take advantage of his handicap to pay him less than they would another man.

Catherine, despite her education, is startled at first by Jim’s intelligence. At one point, she observes, “There was so much going on behind his concentrated gaze, so many thoughts trapped inside his head—caged by silence.” She is determined, as much because of her attraction to him as because of her indignation at the dismissive treatment he has so far received from most of the people in town, to help him break out of that cage, by teaching him to read and write, and to communicate using sign language.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that both Jim and Catherine face a bumpy ride. They are both good people, but as people do, they second guess themselves, make some unfortunate decisions with the best of intentions, and generally speaking, are human.

There are a number of secondary characters, a few of which play significant rôles in the story. It’s important to mention that with one or two exceptions, these characters are each drawn as individual people, with their own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, that is one of Ms Dee’s writing’s most distinctive aspects: the depth and deftness of her characterizations.

Being the quibbling sort, I have some issues with continuity—periods of time change from eight to six years, hands are simultaneously laced behind a head and on a stomach, etc.—but these details do not detract from the quality of the writing and the charm of the story.

A Hearing Heart gets 8.5 out of 10.

Available through Liquid Silver Books

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