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Set during 1915-19 in Canada, United States, England, Belgium and France, this is the story of a young woman in her 20’s, Grania O’ Neill (pronounced GRAW-NEE-YA, an Irish name meaning “Love”), profoundly deaf from the age of 5 as a result of scarlet fever. She marries Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who, 2 weeks after their marriage, leaves home in Ontario to serve his King and country and “do his bit for Mother England.” Jim tries in every possible way to understand his wife’s experience of deafness, and together ...
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Set during 1915-19 in Canada, United States, England, Belgium and France, this is the story of a young woman in her 20’s, Grania O’ Neill (pronounced GRAW-NEE-YA, an Irish name meaning “Love”), profoundly deaf from the age of 5 as a result of scarlet fever. She marries Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who, 2 weeks after their marriage, leaves home in Ontario to serve his King and country and “do his bit for Mother England.” Jim tries in every possible way to understand his wife’s experience of deafness, and together they explore their love through the silence in which she lives.

Jim is trained as a stretcher-bearer in one of the large camps on the southeast coast of England. He serves in Belgium and France with Number 9 Canadian Field Ambulance. His war experiences, friendships, and care of the dying and wounded during this brutal war of attrition, are moving, intimately detailed and carefully researched to show the realities of the life of a stretcher bearer serving in the front lines.

On the home front, Grania’s childhood in a small town on the edge of Lake Ontario, where her father owns a hotel; and as a residential student at “The Institution for the Deaf and Dumb” in a small Ontario city. A bright child, she has to learn “real” sign language (which replaces the private language she and her sister had, as small children, invented). She also learns, by necessity, extreme self-discipline and control over her emotions, which enables her to survive the trauma of leaving home and the facts of institutional life with 300 other deaf children around her. No visits home are permitted during the school year.

Grania’s Mother, guilt-ridden and never accepting of Grania’s deafness, tries to make Grania hear. She tries for cures by miracle, and by taking her to Rochester, New York, in hopes of finding specialized medical treatment.

Grania’s early experiences inside her own silence and within a family that tries to overprotect—despite her gradually developing independence and strengths—later illuminate the complexity of her adult relationships: with her closest deaf friend, Fry; with her older sister Tress—who was once her lifeline; with her Irish Grandmother, “Mamo” (the most important person in her life at home and the one who teaches her to read and to speak, and whose love twice—in separate ways—saves Grania’s life); with her 2 brothers; and with her parents.

After Jim departs for the war, both Grania and her sister move back to their parents’ home and hotel, where everyone in the family helps out with the hotel business.

The tension in the book is held through the juxtaposition of two worlds: the world of war, violence and sound as shown through Jim’s horrific experiences at the Front (which include several major battles); and life for Grania inside the silence of her own world during the long years of waiting on the home front—where news is frequently bad as more and more local boys are reported killed in the war.

Grania’s brother-in-law, Kenan, returns from the war in early 1918. He is wounded and mutilated and has stopped speaking. It is Grania who, with her extensive speech training recalled from residential schooldays, makes the breakthrough to Kenan’s speech. But this success creates resentment in her sister because Kenan is not able to confide or share his war experience with his young wife.

Events move quickly toward resolution as first, Spanish flu sweeps through the town ( a deadly pandemic), followed by Armistice (Nov 1918) and eventual demobilization. A moving sequence of events with her sister releases tensions between Grania and Tress. The loss of Mamo finally leads to the release of emotions Grania has never permitted herself to express.

In the spring of 1919, Jim returns home. He and Grania have survived, but their separate experiences have altered them forever. Jim has been part of events that “the mind will gorge upon in horror forever.” He has lost his closest friend from the war, a man who has been a brother to him. But it is his love for Grania that has kept him going.

Grania realizes, the instant she sees Jim, that neither of them will ever totally understand what the other has been through. Together they accept the realization that, in context of their love for each other, not understanding, not knowing, will have to be enough to move them forward.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
...[D]espite all the pleasures Itani is able to deliver, her decision to split the book into Grania's and Jim's chapters ends up causing a fatal falling-off in momentum. It is as if three books -- one concerning Grania's childhood, another concerning her life on the home front and the third detailing Jim's army experience -- were uneasily trying to coexist within one cover. The conversation Itani is able to create among these three narratives is insufficient to the task of calling them into unity. Though Deafening flows admirably in the early going, it ends up being more memorable for its failures than for this early success. — Mark Baechtel
Publishers Weekly
War and deafness are the twin themes of this psychologically rich, impeccably crafted debut novel set during WWI. Born in the late 19th century, Grania O'Neill comes from solid middle-class stock, her father a hotel owner in Deseronto, Ontario, her mother a God-fearing daughter of an Irish immigrant. When Grania is five, she loses her hearing to scarlet fever. When she is nine, she is sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Belleville and given an education not only in lipreading, signing and speaking but also in emotional self-sufficiency. After graduating, she works as a nurse in the Belleville hospital, where she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd. They marry, but Jim is bound for the war as a stretcher bearer. His war is hell on earth: lurid wounds; stinks; sudden, endless slaughter redeemed only by comradeship. Itani's remarkably vivid, unflinching descriptions of his ordeal tend to overshadow Grania's musings on the home front, but Grania's story comes to the fore again when her brother-in-law and childhood friend, Kenan, comes back to Deseronto from the trenches in Europe with a dead arm and a half-smashed face, refusing to speak. Grania, who was educated to configure sounds she couldn't hear into words that "the hearing" could understand, brings Kenan back to life by teaching him sounds again, and then by making portraits of the people in the town whom she, Kenan and her sister Tress know in common. As she talks to Kenan, she reinvigorates him with a sense that his life, having had such a rich past, must have a future, too. This subplot eloquently expresses Itani's evident, pervasive faith in the unexpected power of story to not only represent life but to enact itself within lives. Her wonderfully felt novel is a timely reminder of war's cost, told from an unexpected perspective. (Sept.) Forecast: Itani's first novel is reminiscent of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and has a good chance of striking a similar popular chord, backed up by a 100,000 first printing, $100,000 promo budget and a 17-city author tour. Foreign rights sold in 12 countries. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Scarlet fever robs Grania O'Neill of her hearing when she is five years old. After learning to sign and read lips, she is sent, at nine, to the Ontario School for the Deaf. Determined to make a life for herself without becoming a burden to her family, Grania works at the school hospital after graduation until she meets and marries Jim Lloyd. Shortly after their wedding, he heads off to the Great War as a stretcher bearer. Award-winning Canadian writer Itani does a good job of presenting her considerable research into education for the hearing-impaired in the early 20th century, small-town Canadian life, and World War I trench warfare, without allowing the details to overshadow what is essentially a character study and romance. Lorraine Hamelin reads with both sensitivity and humor and handles Grania's dialog well, making it sound realistic and intelligible. Sections of Deafening could easily have come across as too sentimental or too grim, but Hamelin keeps the emotional elements under control. Recommended for all collections.-Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An impressively daring first novel from Canada-storywriter Itani's US debut-immerses us in both the world of the deaf and the world of WWI trench warfare. Grania O'Neill is a lucky little girl. Even though her scarlet fever brings on incurable deafness, she is encircled by her family's love. Yes, she is smart and strong-willed, but it is the love of grandmother Mamo and big sister Tress that pulls her through (Mother's love is obstructed by guilt). It's a new century; this family of Irish immigrants owns a hotel in a small Canadian company town on Lake Ontario. The practical Mamo becomes Grania's mentor, but realizes that Grania must leave the charmed circle to attend a boarding school for the deaf. Institutional life has Grania crying for two weeks until she takes control. We learn along with her: how words can be felt; how to concentrate on whatever moves; how to "look for the information" by developing "an extra eye." Grania stays on after graduation, working in the school hospital, where she meets Jim Lloyd. The attraction between deaf and hearing person is immediate. Even though Jim will soon be headed over there (it's 1915), the two decide on marriage, a wedding blessed by Mamo. At the front in Belgium, Jim is a stretcher-bearer. We tumble into a pit of horrors. The noise is relentless. Some of the boys, though uninjured, will become deaf. They work together with the enemy in No Man's Land, soundlessly, miming their search for the wounded. Artful links, these, to Grania's odyssey, which could have been overwhelmed by the frontline gore. There is grim news on the home front, too, as Grania nearly succumbs to the great influenza epidemic of 1918; Mamo sacrifices her own life to saveher. Jim returns home unharmed, but with "old eyes." Husband and wife embody Itani's theme: the power and reach of love-love that falters only in the face of the unknowable. Itani never loses control of her tricky material: the result is an artistic triumph. First printing of 100,000; $100,000 ad/promo; author tour. Agent: Jackie Kaiser/Westwood Creative Artists
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802141651
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 449,511
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Itani is the author of four acclaimed short story collections and has written stories, drama, and features for CBC Radio. She divides her time between Ottawa and Geneva. Deafening is her American debut.
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Read an Excerpt

"Go to my room." Mamo is pointing to the floor above. "Bring the package on my bureau."

Grania watches her grandmother's lips. She understands, pushes aside the heavy tapestry curtain that keeps the draught from blowing up the stairs, and runs up to the landing. She pauses long enough to glance through the only window in the house that is shaped like a porthole, even though it's at the back of the house and looks over land, not water. She peers down into the backyard, sees the leaning fence, the paddock and, over to the right, the drive sheds behind Father's hotel. Far to the left, over the top of the houses on Mill Street, she can see a rectangle of field that stretches in the opposite direction, towards the western edge of town. A forked tree casts a long double shadow that has begun its corner-to-corner afternoon slide across the field. Remembering her errand, Grania pulls back, runs to Mamo's room, finds the package tied up in a square of blue cloth and carries it, wrapped, to the parlour. Mamo pulls a low chair over beside her rocker. Her rocker moves with her, out to the veranda, back to the parlour, out to the veranda again.

"Sit here," her lips say.

Grania watches. Her fingers have already probed the package on the way down the stairs, and she knows it is a book. At a nod from Mamo she unties the knot and folds back the cloth. The first thing she sees on the cover is a word, a word picture. The word is made of yellow rope and twines its way across the deck of a ship where a bearded captain steers and a barefoot boy sits on a rough bench beside him. The boy is reading a book that is identical to the one in Grania's hands-it has the same cover. The sea and sky and sails in the background are soft blues and creams and browns.

Grania knows the rope letters because, after the scarlet fever, she relearned the alphabet with Mamo. The yellow letters curve and twist in a six-letter shape.

"Sunday," Mamo says. "The title of the book is Sunday, but you may keep the book in your room and look at it any time you want. Every day, we will choose a page and you will learn the words under the picture. Yes?" Eyebrows up. A question.

The book is for her. This she understands. Yes. Her fingers roam the cover but she has to be still or she will give Mamo the fidgets.

"There are many words in the book," Mamo says. "So many words." She taps her fingertips against the cover. "Some day, you will know them all." She mutters to herself, "If you can say a word, you can use it," not knowing how much Grania has understood. "We will do this, word by word-until your parents make up their minds to do something about your schooling. You've already lost one year, and a valuable part of another."

Mamo's finger points at the book and her eyes give the go-ahead flicker. Grania opens the stiff cover and turns the blank sheet that follows. The word Sunday is on the inside, too, but this time its letters are dark and made of twigs instead of yellow rope. The page that follows the twigs is in colour.

A brown-and-white calf has stopped on a grassy path and is staring at a girl. The girl is approaching from the opposite direction. She seems to be the same size and age as Grania; she might be seven or eight. Only the back of her can be seen-blue dress, black stockings, black shoes. Her hat, daisies tumbling from the crown, droops from one hand. A doll wearing a red dress dangles limply from the other. The doll's hair is as red as Grania's. No one in the picture is moving. The calf looks too startled to lift a hoof.

Grania points to two words beneath the picture and looks at Mamo's mouth.

"'BOTH AFRAID,'" Mamo reads.

The first sound erupts from Grania's lips. "BO," she says. "BO."

Mamo makes the TH shape with her tongue. "BO-TH."

Grania tries over and over, watching Mamo's lips. TH is not so easy. She already knows AFRAID. Afraid is what she is every night in the dark.

"Practise," Mamo tells her. She lifts herself out of the rocker, leaving behind the scent of Canada Bouquet, the perfume she chose because of its name and because she chose this country and because of the stench of the ship she left behind many years ago, and because Mr. Eaton sends the perfume from his mail-order catalogue in tiny bottles that cost forty-one cents. The air flutters like a rag as she walks away.

Grania breathes deeply, inhaling the scent. She sniffs the closed book and squeezes it to her as if it might get away. Both and afraid roll together, thick and half-new on her tongue. She runs upstairs to the room she shares with her older sister. Tress is stretched out reading her own book, The Faeries. Sometimes, Mamo and Tress read aloud to each other, after Tress walks home from school. Grania watches their lips, but she doesn't know the stories.

"Say," Grania says to Tress. She points to the words beneath the picture. "Say in my ear."

Tress's glance takes in the new book. She knows it is a gift from Mamo. "What's the use?" she says. "You won't hear." She shakes her head, No.

"Shout," says Grania.

"You still won't hear."

"Shout in my ear." She narrows her voice so that Tress will understand that she is not going to go away. She turns her head to the side and feels Tress's cupped hands and two explosive puffs of air.

Tress listens as Grania practises, "BOTHAFRAID BOTHAFRAID BOTHAFRAID."

"Pretty good," her mouth says. She shrugs and goes back to The Faeries. ©2003 by Frances Itani. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Reading Group Guide

Deafening is a tale of remarkable virtuosity and power, set on the eve of the Great War and spanning two continents and the life and loves of a young deaf woman in Canada named Grania O'Neill.

At the age of five, Grania-the daughter of hardworking hoteliers in small-town Ontario-emerges from a bout of scarlet fever profoundly deaf and is suddenly sealed off from the world that was just beginning to open for her. Her guilt-plagued mother cannot accept her daughter's deafness, so Grania's saving grace is Mamo, her indefatigable grandmother who tries to teach her language. But when it becomes clear that Grania can no longer thrive in the world of the hearing, her family sends her to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf, where, protected from the often-unforgiving hearing world outside, she learns sign language and speech.

After graduation Grania stays on to work at the school, and it is there that she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man. In wonderment the two begin to create a new emotional vocabulary that encompasses both sound and silence. But two weeks after their wedding, Jim must leave home to serve as a stretcher-bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders. During this long and brutal war of attrition, Jim and Grania's letters back and forth - both real and imagined - attempt to sustain the intimacy they discovered in Canada, even while they are both pulled into disturbing and devastating events.

A magnificent tale of love and war, Deafening is also an ode to language-how it can console, imprison, and liberate, and how it alone can bridge vast chasms of geography and experience.


1. How well does Itani's novel convey the world of the deaf, specifically that of Grania? Are we persuaded that we are inside Grania's silent world?

2. In drawing a character who is profoundly deaf, an author might be tempted to overstate her virtues and triumphs. Is this so in Deafening? How is Grania depicted realistically? Do you find her subject to anger, resentment, and brooding? In other words, isn't she human? We learn about Grania's deafness primarily from the narrator, with Grania herself as a prism. But we also learn about it from other multiple sources. What are they? Does Grania's deafness serve as a litmus test for other characters' humanity?

3. What makes Deafening a work of consequence? Certainly it teaches us about both the limitations of deafness and the possibilities open to a person of inner strength and determination. What are other concerns of the novel? It is clear that enormous research has informed the book. Do you find that references to public events like the sinking of the Lusitania or Alexander Graham Bell's research into deafness connect the story to a larger context?

4. Are there advantages to deafness? Consider the pleasure of a fireworks display without the racket: "a display of Roman candles, fire balloons and sky-rockets, pin wheels and fountain wheels. The night exploded silently before their eyes while, tired and excited, they leaned into each other's warmth, their skirts tucked beneath them as they sat on the grass of the school lawns that were lighted all around with electric lights hidden inside Japanese lanterns. All of this, she tried to convey to Tress" (p. 90).

Are there times when you have experienced a remarkable quiet? Think of a deep snowstorm in the city when the noise is absent. Do you sympathize with people who buy earphones, not for music but to block sound. Is there a special pleasure about silent movies? Even though we have elaborate technology for sound, isn't it often abused? Would a film like Winged Migration be more effective without its music soundtrack?

"She stood at her bedroom window and peered out. In all of the winter whiteness, perhaps silence was everywhere. She would ask Mamo. Beneath the window she saw undisturbed snow in the street, and a glistening over the new layer of ice. When snow covered the earth, did it also absorb sound? She felt safe during snowstorms, although this was something she could not have explained. Perhaps hearing and deaf people were joined in the same way for a brief time in a silent world" (p. 261). Is Grania's speculative turn of mind a major component of her learning language?

5. From the time Grania insists on earless paper dolls, she asserts her will as well as the reality of her deafness. (In contrast one thinks of the black child in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye who despaired because she didn't look like her blond doll.) Grania dreams with decision: her earless girl will go to the C-shore and play safely in the waves (p.45). . Can you think of other times when Grania uses her deafness for her own purposes? With the odious Cora, for example?

An ironic footnote is that later in her life when Grania and others are living "inside a feeling of terrible necessity (endless war, loss, crumbling business because of Temperance) Grania "pressed her hands to her ears as if, by doing so, she would silence the flow of her own thoughts" (p. 246).

6. How can we trace Grania's learning process? We know she retains a few random shreds from actual pre-deaf experience, and she has a phenomenal memory. How does she accumulate the information and skills she needs to become a fully functioning person? What is the role of Tress? Of Mamo? ("…the gift of pictures and words, learned and remembered and stored" p. 42). Other characters who contribute to her growth? How do Itani's images help us enter Grania's thinking? C-shore. "She says 'C' and 'shore' over and over again. She twists the word into yellow rope and stores it in her memory" (p. 44).

7. Do you see an identifiable moral sense in Deafening? If so, what would it be? What behavior is condemned, what is extolled, and what merely condoned or tolerated? What do Cora (who seems to resent Grania's very existence) and her daughter Jewel represent? You recall it is Jewel who pins the white feather on Bernard. When we enter the world of the war, the moral senses are both sharpened and made ambiguous. One moment that is clear is the sinking of the Lusitania: "The drowning of those women and babies was a cowardly act. A brutal act by cowardly men" (p. 101) . How is history made vivid and relevant? For Grania it is "one hundred and fifty dead babies floating in the sea off the coast of Ireland" (p. 109).

8. What are we to make of Grania's mother? She prays for miracles, makes pilgrimages, including the doctor in America and the shrine in Quebec, hoping to cure her daughter's deafness, to no avail. Guilt assails her. Why? Even when Grania wants to share sign language, her mother resists. "I have too much work to do" (p. 92). Is the work a pretext? What is the result in their relationship? Grania "felt the hard wall that was Mother's will, Mother's intent. Three years after she finished school…she could still feel Mother's will" (p. 116) . Is there ever a time that things change for them? Consider Mother's startling act when Kenan is injured (p. 249).

When Jim enters Grania's life, how does Mother respond? Remember "No announcements"? In clinging to her guilt and prayers, is Mother dismissing Grania? Does her intransigence further distance her husband? Would it shake Mother's reality to think Grania might be not only independent but also perhaps happy?

9. The love story: are there times when the necessity for a private language turns into a delight? "…they had begun to create a language of their own. It arose as naturally as the love between them, an invented code no one would ever break" (p. 123) . Is it partly their challenges that keep them from taking their love for granted? "…he brushed a fingertip over his lips and signalled across the room…Grania's cheeks reddened furiously when he made the public-private display….He had never known a language that so thoroughly encompassed love. She had never felt so safe" (p. 124) . When are other times that the special language links between Jim and Grania become almost enviable?

10. How do Grania and Jim survive their years-long separation and the fear that attends it? As he leaves for war, "he took her hand and held it firmly inside his own and she felt only the pressure of his skin on hers. Don't let go. The war is close. The war is closing in. Against her will, a part of her was shutting down. It was happening to him, too. He is leaving before it's time to go. And though she hated what was happening to both of them, she knew that in the same way he was pulling away, she was pulling back, searching for the safe place inside herself. If she could find it, she would stay there until he returned (p.140).

Do we regard this pragmatism as somehow counter-romantic? Could it be that part of their strength as a couple is based on their strong sense of survival as individuals? These are not immature young people, either one. Jim has been orphaned, twice really, counting his grandparents.

11. If deafness in the novel becomes a world of possibility, a triumph of human ingenuity, then can war be seen as a thematic opposite? At first the war is seen by leaders and soldiers alike as a theater for grand achievements: patriotism, courage, adventure, manhood, and brotherhood. What happens to these dreams of glory both on the large scale and the personal? What do you think is Itani's purpose in writing the war scenes? It was Irish who said, "These are the sights the mind gorges on in horror forever, Jimmy" (p. 213).

The destruction is made vivid in this scene: "It was one of the horrors of the war - the terrible waste of living creatures. Thousands upon thousands of horses and mules were buried and unburied across the scarred landscape in these corners of Belgium and France" (p. 214). And then the human toll.

One scene in particular is memorable, powerful in its understatement, when Jim meets his German double, also assigned to help the injured. What does Jim take away from the encounter? In this case it is a German who gives first aid to a wounded Canadian and helps load him onto a stretcher. No words are exchanged. Jim tries to hate his enemy "but there was only coldness, no other feeling. Coldness and the hatred of war" (p. 216). Do we deduce that the young German, same age as Jim, same filthy uniform, feels the same?

12. Jim's need to communicate with Grania is so strong that he writes letters in his head he will never be able to send.: "…the fear in the eyes of the horses. My own jostling comrades, as tightly packed as the horses…the stench of being close together..the feeling of stagnation. We are ready to go but we are squashed onto a cattle boat that keeps us in England and brings us no closer to the shores of France. A monoplane appears out of nowhere. The buzz in the sky hovers overhead like a portent. It is a wonderful machine to see. I try to imagine the thrill of freedom a man unknown to me must feel up there, sailing through the sky, looking down on us, a luckless clump of men trapped within the confines of an old cattle boat" (p. 155).

The perils of war, the fears, courage, brutality, brotherhood and waste of war are perhaps universal from Troy to the Somme to Vietnam. How does Itani create simultaneously a specific time, World War One, and the timelessness of all wars?

13. War takes center stage for much of the novel. But the issues at the front and those at home often echo each other. Think of isolation, fear, friendship, and the need for communication. How does Itani create a counterpoint between home and "over there"?

14. How would you compare or contrast Deafening with other war books you have read. Think of some titles. Did those works glorify or at least justify war? Do any of them seem like out-and-out antiwar books? How would you characterize Itani's novel?

15. How would you describe Itani's narrative method? How does she structure the novel? Would you say the device of interweaving memories and the Sunday book throughout is a fair evocation of Grania's thinking process? Of anyone's?

16. It stands to reason that some things will always be difficult for Grania. What are some of these inevitables? "As always, in a group, words jumped the circle quickly and could not be read. When Mamo and Tress were with her, Grania was included. She had only to cast a sideways glance at either to follow their familiar lips - lips that formed words without creating so much as a whisper, lips that supplied silent commentary as they had been doing since she was five years old. Keeping her inside the circle of information" (p. 226). Do you sense that she will always need dependable allies to help her navigate?

We recall the poignancy of her instinct that "for her, alone is best" and yet her need to reach out to children in the hearing school. She succumbs to the hope of playing their game unaware that she is the game, the butt. She watches and tries to capture their words, but fails. "Whatever it is bounces from one child to another, erupting the way mayflies erupt on the surface of the water, quick, impossible to catch…The children keep it in front, overhead, behind, to the side. But behind does not exist. Not for her. Behind is the darkness outside of thought. It's the place where sound gathers, sound that she is not meant to hear" (p. 55). . Do you find language like this, imagery close to poetry, effective in capturing Grania's world?

17. Memory translates into smell for Grania often. As she leaves school in June, "Grania's nose sniffs carbolic acid when she thinks of the trunk; her own and everyone else's will be fumigated, clothes and all, when they return in the fall" (p. 88). What other smells are particularly important for her? Think of Mamo and her scent, one that comforts Grania after her grandmother's death. In a parallel way, how is Grania's understanding of the world heightened in a visual way?

18. Are secrets important in the book? Think of Tress, Aunt Maggie, Mrs. Brant, Mamo, Kenan, Grew, and Father. In this book discuss how secrets are used for connection or exclusion or simply to maintain privacy.

19. Someone has sprung the question: "Can the deaf think?" Why not ask a few more: "Can the deaf eat?" "Can the deaf sleep?" "Can the deaf breathe?" It strikes us that the fool-killer misses a good many possible swats with his club. The Canadian (p.336)

The absurdity of the passage is blatant to us after reading Deafening. Are there other "differences" that distance us from people until we get to know them? What are some of these? Ethnic, religious, sexual, social, racial? We think of Shakespeare's Shylock saying, "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands…affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed?" (Merchant of Venice) In your experience can you remember getting over a hump of similar ignorance? Do you believe that literature can help us in this regard?

20. Do you identify with Grania in some ways? Isn't the world view of any person necessarily limited? Cobbled together from bits and pieces learned and observed? Relating ideas, thinking, may be as instinctive as the senses, but the raw data to some degree remains random and partial. Do you agree? Discuss examples in your own life or that of others.

21. How does Canada per se assume importance in Deafening? How does Itani establish a sense of place? Is it a frontier, a place of fresh starts, of self-creation? Is it hard for Americans to comprehend "We are coming, Mother Britain, we are coming to your aid. / There's a debt we owe our fathers, and we mean to see it paid" (poem in The Canadian, p. 120).

Are there ambiguous feelings about the war in Grania's community? At one point, Grania, observing the piano player for a recruitment concert wonders "with his son in France, what Grew thought of tonight's show of patriotism" (p. 135). On the other hand, "the thrill of being part of this moment could not be denied. Jim and all of these men were leaving to serve their country" (p. 140). Do you see analogies in recent days in America, conflicting ideas about patriotism?

It is just as pleasant and grand a thing to die for Canada and the British Empire today as it was for Rome in the brave days of old. The Canadian (p.243).

"Was she the only one who was angry?" wonders Grania. It is worth recalling Wifred Owen's poem, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…" from 1920. Does Itani create the same tone of bitter irony?

22. In the novel music assumes definite importance. What are some examples? Think of Mamo and Grania, and Grania sitting on the step singing to Carlow. For Jim music is bred in the bone; he plays the piano, the harmonica, and he sings. How does music begin to make sense to Grania? "Grania believed that music and song were everywhere. Not only in clouds but in flights of birds, in oak leaves that brushed the dorm window, in the children's legs as they raced across the lawns. 'It's silly, isn't it,' she signed. 'My memory of sound is gone for all those years --fourteen years-but I feel as if my brain remembers music'" (p. 115). Does music, paradoxically, become a bond for Grania and Jim? How do they make this bond?

23. Sound and silence knit the disparate elements of the book together. Can you think of examples? Some of the severely wounded stop speaking: Kenan, for example. Others become deaf without evident cause. Jim, as a musician, has a keen sensitivity to sound, and the relentless clamor of war makes it a circle of Dante's hell for him. Sound bombards them, terrifies them, blocks out thought. When it's not the bombs and guns, it is the screams of pain and constant complaining. Do you find that Itani is as effective in describing the horrors of war noise as she is the silent world of the deaf? "Sound was always more important to the hearing," said Grania (p. 127). How does Grania later communicate to Jim the joys of Armistice? (p.327). Do you find it ironic that it is the hearing administrators who dictate the Canadian''s description? Is it Grania's love for Jim, her understanding of his sensitivity to sound and music that leads her to share details denied to her?

What does it mean when Grania opens the floodgates of memory to Kenan, her sharp observations of their shared childhood? What is the significance for Grania? For Kenan? He, too, can finally break through with war memories. "…it was so dark. So much noise. There was no silence in that place. The boys went mad from the sound. Some tried to dig their own graves" (p. 282).

24. How is teaching a major force in the novel? Consider the teaching that works and that which doesn't, such as Grania's first experience in hearing school where the teacher turn her head away or otherwise ignores her. When does Grania show her remarkable talents for teaching? How does the teaching work both ways with Tress, Mamo, and Jim? Mamo at one point puts down the Sunday book, that breakthrough miracle book for Grania. "Grania begins to teach Mamo the hand alphabet -- which the old arthritic hands delight in learning. M-a-m-o, Grania spells, and she creates a name-sign, tapping a three-fingered 'M' against her cheek"(p.91). Think about the extraordinary bonds that are created between students and teachers when it really works. After reading Deafening, what do you think are the relative merits of signing versus "oral method"? Do you think either should be used to the exclusion of the other? We recall Fry's saying " As long as we permit hearing teachers to disapprove of our language, we will always be made to feel ashamed" (p.338). Do you find a persuasive picture of some of these issues in the play or film Children of a Lesser God?

25. How does illness figure as a major motif? Consider Grania's two serious diseases, as well as the results of the epidemic of influenza. As we read daily of SARS, do we feel we have made progress since 1918? As debates rage about civil liberties versus Draconian measures to protect against a Typhoid Mary threat, what are your thoughts?

26. How is Mamo crucial in giving Grania a strong sense of herself? As Mamo relates Grania's own history, she underscores the momentous day of her birth. What happened on that day in Deseronto? "Mamo falls silent and contemplates the miracle of new life in the midst of destruction" (p.33). Indeed it is Mamo who serves as midwife to help deliver her granddaughter, a lifelong sustaining connection between them. In what other ways does Mamo provide lifelines for Grania?

27. Frances Itani sees this novel as being about love and hope-despite loss and sickness, war and devastation. She has worked thematically with "emptiness as source." Do you think she has achieved this, even partially? Discuss.


The Miracle Worker by William Gibson; Wired for Sound: A Journey Into Hearing by Beverly Biderman; Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks; A Loss For Words by Lou Ann Walker; The First Man by Albert Camus; Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard by Nora Ellen Groce; Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves; Ghosts Have Warm Hands: A Memoir of The Great War by Will R. Bird; Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni; The Roses of No Man's Land by Lyn Macdonald; The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery. Vol. II: 1910-1921. Ed. by Mary Rubio & Elizabeth Waterston; Letters of a Canadian Stretcher Bearer by R.A.L. Ed. by Anna Chapin Ray; the Double! by Frederick W. Noyes; Letters of Agar Adamson. Ed. by N.M. Christie; The Great War As I Saw It by Canon Frederick G. Scott; Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; The Ghost Road, WWI trilogy by Pat Barker; Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; Selected Poems by Siegfried Sassoon; The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community by Harlan Lane; The Wars by Timothy Findley
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent!!!  Wonderful story.  Great historical fiction.  Highl

    Excellent!!!  Wonderful story.  Great historical fiction.  Highly recommended!!!  I learned a lot about being deaf during the early 1900s as well as information about WW One!  Characters were fully developed and interesting.  I really cared about what was happening to them during this trying time.  I have just purchased any book by this author on my NOOK!  Another well-written historical fiction is The Partisan by William Jarvis.  This outstanding book just won an Indie Medalian Award.  Both books deserve an A+++++++

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2012


    Felt more like a teaching lesson than a novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2005

    A Beautifully Written Novel

    Life is a complicated thing one can describe. People cannot easily accept the physically disadvantaged, and it leads to utter frustration. This book by Francis Itani touched my heart, as it is the first of a kind I have come across in my life. I must admit it that I have been very eager to read the lives of the deaf community, other than Helen Keller, Thomas Edison and Beethoven. But this book, Deafening gives the true insight of the lives of Grania and Jim, and how they created their own ways to communicate - its a very sweet and romantic thing to do together. Deafening is just magnificent with its beautiful expressions and thoughts that come straight from the heart, and though it is sad to know about Grania's condition, there is not a trace of sympathy she expected from the people around her, which shows her grit and confidence. Never in my life could I imagine a deaf individual living with a hearing individual ~ its not impossible, but looks pretty unrealistic. I appeal to readers to help the physically disadvantaged as much as possible, and never let them feel socially cut-off in any situation. The world is definitely cruel, but people should show little consideration, as it would do them good too. My final word - 'Break the barriers and build the bonds'...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2003

    A Rare Treasure

    Deafening is a treasure. Itani conveys Grania¿s story so closely and carefully to her reader. Grania is a character I will always remember for her intelligence, her courage, and her ability to overcome. Itani does an admirable job illustrating the relationship dynamics between Grania and her family members and friends. I was moved by Itani's rendition of how Grania¿s mother, father and grandmother all dealt with her hearing loss. The human element is always apparent: anger, denial and acceptance. Itani brings to life Grania and her story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2014

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