Ship Sooner

Ship Sooner

by Mary Sullivan

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Envision an imaginary dial with which you can turn all sounds from your everyday experience onto the highest level of volume: that is the world of 13–year old Ship Sooner whose incredible ability to hear sounds normally indiscernible to the human ear defines her life–"Carson McCullers meets Alice Hoffman" (Baltimore Sun).

Ship Sooner


Envision an imaginary dial with which you can turn all sounds from your everyday experience onto the highest level of volume: that is the world of 13–year old Ship Sooner whose incredible ability to hear sounds normally indiscernible to the human ear defines her life–"Carson McCullers meets Alice Hoffman" (Baltimore Sun).

Ship Sooner hears everyone and everything in her sleepy Massachusetts town. Sounds of frost forming on glass; a rabbit hopping on just fallen snow; and of a fork making indentations on pie crust are as familiar to Ship as an old Sinatra tune played full volume at the town diner. Misunderstood by her classmates and ignored by her disdainful older sister, thirteen–year old Ship consoles herself by listening to the sounds of others' secrets: her mother's lips pressing against those of a balding salesman's; her sister Helen's trysts in a secluded shed; family friend Trudy's breath quickening as she cuts the hair of the town priest; and her only friend Brian Dodd's promise to his parents not to tell where he goes with them on Sunday afternoons.

Ship's isolation intensifies when Brian disappears inexplicably the day after Christmas. During the long winter of 1981, as Helen retreats behind her slammed bedroom door and her mother is increasingly absent, Ship keeps a vigil for Brian and slowly loses hope. But as winter melts to spring, an unexpected calling from the woods will lead her to make an astonishing discovery that compels her to abandon all that she has known, and set out on a journey to transform her life.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
Ship Sooner stays with you long after you put it down.
Baltimore Sun
Lyrical...well-wrought...with an edge of magical realism: Carson McCullers meets Alice Hoffman...sharply drawn characters...tinged with allegory...startling.
Ship Sooner explores the pain-drenched life of an emotionally fragile family...compelling.
Boston Herald
(A) gripping journey from self-consciousness to self-discovery...(Readers will) close the book with a new ear attuned to the world.
The Washington Post
The story builds slowly, and Sullivan's writing is spare, relying on an accretion of resonant phrases and sentences -- almost like poetry -- to amass power. She's masterly at getting us to understand the joys and sorrows that attend Ship's sharpened hearing. Of course, for an adolescent, it's wonderful to overhear secrets and know things you're not supposed to. On the other hand, it's awful to be different in a small town, a freak wearing "ear caps" to soften all that ambient noise. — Anne Glusker
Publishers Weekly
Sheila "Ship" Sooner, a 13-year-old girl born with "exceptional hearing," can hear conversations whispered behind closed doors, the flutter of other people's eyelids and even the heartbeat of her best friend and neighbor, Brian Dodd. She wears ear caps to dampen the unbearable loudness of the world (smoke alarms and passing trains leave her howling in pain), removing the headphone-like device only to spy, along with Brian, on the citizens of 1970s Herringtown, Mass. But just because Ship hears everything doesn't mean the overinformed, socially awkward adolescent understands it. She feels singularly distant from her high-heel-clad mother, Teresa, who is loving but preoccupied with petty gossip and men, and her older, cheerleader sister, Helen. When Teresa is called to care for a sick friend, her increasingly long absences, joined with Helen's cruelty and Brian's mysterious disappearance, leave Ship adrift. Ship's acute hearing causes her to make a startling discovery, and the rest of the novel follows her confused wanderings as she tries blindly to care for someone even more helpless than herself while she searches for Brian. Ship's misadventures are increasingly unlikely, but the compelling characters carefully developed in the first half-not to mention the evocative descriptions of Ship's "miracle hearing" ("A lighter snaps open, then a flame licks up, followed by the burn, the hiss, and the singe of Trudy's cigarette")-hold the reader's interest to the end. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Ship Sooner is a thirteen-year-old girl born with the ability to hear even the subtlest of sounds. Her sister's snapping gum, a quiet conversation in the room next door, the heartbeat of the boy she loves—these noises console, haunt, and overwhelm her. Her schoolmates and neighbors fear her ability and, to preserve their secrets, treat her like an outsider. Ship longs for the father who left her and her family, walking out the door without a word of explanation. She wishes to be free from the critical eyes and words of her older sister. She desires the love of Brian, the boy who lives with his invalid mother and overly-loud father and holds secrets of his own. Ship feels even more isolated and alone when Brian disappears unexpectedly, her mother spends time away from home to be with her ill friend, and her sister shuts herself up in her room. One afternoon, however, her life changes forever, as she follows her ears to the sound of a crying infant in the forest. Lifting the baby from its presumed grave, she plans to flee her small Massachusetts town and raise the child as her own. At last, she feels needed. She carries the child inside her coat, both loving and fearing her secret. Her journey ultimately leads her home again, a wiser and more aware young person. Told from Ship's point of view, the novel embodies an innocence and naiveté that are often sweet, at times frustrating, but always honest. We relish Ship's compassion, are angered by her foolishness, and find hope in her persistence and belief in goodness despite the horrors she sees in the world. With realistic portrayal of sexual encounters and violent acts, as well as a writing style that requires close attention to detail,the novel is more appropriate for older teens. 2004, William Morrow, Ages 15 to 18.
—Wendy Glenn, Ph.D.
Library Journal
In her second novel (after Stay), Sullivan, coordinator for PEN New England, puts an inventive twist on the coming-of-age genre. Ship Sooner can hear really well-she can even grasp a quiet conversation inside a house while she is standing outside, some distance away. Only 13, she was born with this uncanny sense, which has relegated her to life as an outsider. Kids ridicule her, and adults walk away quickly, lest they be overheard. Ship (born Sheila), mom Teresa, and sister Helen live in a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts. Their father walked out on them one day, never to be seen or heard from again. Teresa is doing her best to raise two teenaged daughters, baking for a living around the clock and caring for her ailing friend, Trudy. One day, Ship is waiting for Teresa after school when her hearing leads her to a discovery in the woods that sets her world on end. Realistic and heartbreaking yet hopeful, this story of a small family trying to make its way against all odds engrosses the reader. Recommended for adult and teen fiction collections in most public libraries.-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Ship Sooner has hearing so sensitive that she has to wear special ear covers to keep out sounds. Because of her special gift, the 13-year-old knows things that no one knows she knows. She hears her friend Brian and his father discuss family secrets. She knows what her sister Helen is doing with boys in the old shed. She frightens the kids in town because they don't know what she might know about them. When Brian disappears after his dad catches him at the shed with Helen, Ship is especially lonely. Walking in the woods one day, she discovers a newborn girl wrapped in a towel and buried in the dirt. She thinks she knows who the mother is but decides to care for the infant herself. The resulting journey-to find Brian, to find her father, and to save the baby-is both disturbing and lonely. Eventually, she realizes that she needs help and returns home where she discovers the truth about the baby. Relationships in the family change as a result and Ship makes a step into adulthood. Brutal and engrossing, with eccentric characters and a circular plot of coming home again, Sullivan's novel is dark yet hopeful.-Janet Hilbun, formerly at Sam Houston Middle School, Garland, TX Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
David Mamet
“...Ship Sooner somehow captures the dimly remembered child sense of the world…What an accomplishment.”
Jodi Picoult
“Sullivan has created the quintessential metaphor for a coming of age tale…Ship Sooner is that rare novel with perfect pitch.”
Andre Dubus III
“Mary Sullivan gives us a protagonist we can’t help but love…This is a lovely and redemptive novel.”
“Riveting...a beautiful contemporary drama…the gripping mystery makes you rush to the end…heartfelt.”
Chicago Sunday Tribune
“Ship Sooner stays with you long after you put it down.”
Copley News Service
“Sensitive and spellbinding, this beautiful…gripping, heartfelt family tale, is…on many new must-read lists for teens and adults.”
Washington Post Book World
“Ethereal and lovely…There’s not a scene or action that doesn’t reverberate with what Ship hears.”

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Read an Excerpt

Ship Sooner
A Novel

Chapter One

The branches of the giant pear tree shake their last leaves into the December air. The stems snap off the ends of the twigs and the leaves are swept up in the wind, flying every which way before they skid down the roof slope and brush over the top of the grass. They blow backward and forward, rattling toward the Dodds' house. Then they are gone.

As night comes, the pear tree looms across the sky like it is ruler of the dark, its branches like great arms around our house. Of course, there are no pears now. They always fall in July before they're fully ripe because they're as heavy as stones. Every summer my mother, Teresa, is sure someone is going to get hit on the head by one of them, so she has us hang signs around the yard: beware of falling pears.

I sit at the foot of the tree between its stumpy toes and listen to Teresa and Trudy in the kitchen getting ready for my birthday party. Brian and I keep track of people in Herringtown -- that's what we do. Otherwise I wouldn't know a thing because no one says anything around me. Teresa says you have to be careful what you do because it all comes back to you. Brian says it's important that we know more about them than they know about us. He has the softest voice of anyone I know. Like after the snow falls and covers everything.

A lighter snaps open, then a flame licks up, followed by the burn, the hiss, and the singe of Trudy's cigarette. Trudy is Teresa's closest friend, but she looks old enough to be Teresa's mother. I wait for her to exhale. Every third or fourth time usually ends in a cough, which racks up from her insides and wheezes out dryand raspy. She spits up into a napkin and Teresa pats her on the back, saying, "When are you ever going to quit?"

"Probably the day I die."

"Don't say that."

"I'm sure heaven has a smoking area."

"You so sure you're going to heaven?"

The freezer door squeaks open then shut, ice cubes plop, pop, and crack in their whiskey sours, and Teresa pit-pats back across the floor. Unless we have visitors, she goes barefoot inside. She'd never go anywhere outside without her high heels. She says the only reason men look at her is because of her legs. It's true -- men are always dragging their eyes up and down her high-heeled legs. When we tell her she could be in the movies, she says, "Sure, if I got the part of an old lady."

She has the greenest eyes in the world. There's a photo at Jimmy Joe's, the only restaurant in Herringtown, of Ava Gardner standing with Frank Sinatra about to cut their wedding cake, and people always point to it and say Teresa looks just like her. I think Teresa is prettier. Her eyes are greener and sparklier in the light. Why would our dad ever leave her? She and Trudy clink their drinks together. Gold streamers are strung across the kitchen ceiling and balloons are tied to the backs of our chairs. I put them there.

"Guess who called?" Teresa asks.


"Why do I make the same mistake over and over again?"

"You're too impulsive, I always tell you that."

"Desperate, you mean."

Trudy laughs.

"I'm already thirty-six." Teresa sighs. "I feel like I missed so much."

"You always get like this this time of the year."

"I do?"

"Yes, you do. It's the holidays."

"I guess you're right." She chuckles. "You should see his hair. He has twice as much as when we started dating."

"He's probably using some kind of hair-grow shampoo."

"It's like a bouffant now."

Helen walks into the kitchen, snapping her gum between her teeth. Something goes twang! Probably Helen punching one of the balloons with her fist. There is a faint high whistle of helium leaking. By tonight the balloon will be smaller, darker, harder to pop.

"Please don't snap your gum, Helen," Teresa says.

"Hi, Helen," Trudy says. "Where's Ship?"

"Good question." Teresa opens the back door. "Ship!"

"Why do you bother going to the door?" Helen asks.

I wait a few minutes, then step out from behind the pear tree and go inside. Whenever I'm around, everyone whispers or moves away from me. I can't help it if I hear everything.

"There you are, my wild child," Teresa says. She started calling me this because I spent so much time in the woods. "We were waiting for you."

"You're not the only one who's late. Brian is, too," Helen says. Of all the cheerleaders in Herringtown, Helen is the prettiest. She has green eyes like Teresa, but they're like pieces of glass. Everyone always stares at Teresa and Helen.

"Happy birthday, Ship," Trudy says, stubbing out her cigarette. "Come on over here and let me give you a birthday kiss."

"Thanks," I say. She's so nice and warm when I slide into her arms, I want to stay there. The flab on her upper arms jiggles as she releases me.

"What have you been doing?" Helen asks. "Your hair is all over the place. At least you could comb it for your own birthday party."

Teresa always says, "Don't let her bother you. She's just going through a phase."

"How long is a phase?" I ask. "Fifteen years?"

"I'll be right back," I tell them, dashing for the bathroom. My hair is such a tangled-up mess, I can't even get the comb through it. I grab Helen's hair spray from the cabinet under the sink ...

Ship Sooner
A Novel
. Copyright © by Mary Sullivan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

David Mamet
“...Ship Sooner somehow captures the dimly remembered child sense of the world…What an accomplishment.”
Jodi Picoult
“Sullivan has created the quintessential metaphor for a coming of age tale…Ship Sooner is that rare novel with perfect pitch.”
Andre Dubus III
“Mary Sullivan gives us a protagonist we can’t help but love…This is a lovely and redemptive novel.”
Andre Dubus
Mary Sullivan gives us a protagonist we can't help but love...This is a lovely and redemptive novel.

Meet the Author

Mary Sullivan, author of Stay, has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and a St. Botolph Foundation Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter.

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