Review the Day: Hurt Go Happy
There are children’s books that are enjoyable. There are children’s books that stay in your mind long after you’ve read them. And there are children’s books that contain excellent writing in terms of story layout, themes, and rock solid emotions. You are lucky if you can get a combination of two of these requirements. You are blessed beyond words if you somehow manage to find a book that fulfills all three. Pick up a copy of “Hurt Go Happy” and you can actually tick off these requirements one by one as you read the first chapter alone. Funny, horrifying, intelligent, and full of more twists and turns than you could hope to expect, “Hurt Go Happy” is without a doubt one of the strongest children’s books of the year.
Joey wasn’t always deaf, but at the age of thirteen she has been for seven years. Things wouldn’t be so bad either if not for the fact that her mother is overprotective towards her and refuses to let Joey learn American Sign Language. Depending on reading lips only, Joey feels isolated from the world around her. That is, until she meet Sukari and Charlie. Charlie’s an elderly caregiver to Sukari, a chimp with a knowledge of sign language. Instantly Joey bonds with the two, in spite of her mother’s disapproval, and her world begins to grow larger as a result. Yet when Charlie dies and Sukari ends up in the hands of a research lab that tests pesticides on animals, it seems the only person who can save her is a nearly deaf girl who isn't sure she has the strength to go it alone.
Now, to be blunt with you, this doesn’t really sound like a book that I would have enjoyed reading. I was never one of those kids that thought monkeys and apes were fascinating creatures. Yet as an author, Rorby wins you over. Suddenly I found myself re-intrigued by the whole concept. Animals that can communicate with humans through a kind of language? How cool is that! Kids that love animal stories will gravitate to the book all on their own. But the fact that what we have here is something interesting AND really well written just bowled me over. Can I tell you how many “good” books I’ve read this year that’ll make kids’ eyes glaze over before they reach page three? In “Hurt Go Happy” Rorby introduced Sukari on page 22 and that’s still just the first chapter! A well put together work, this.
I loved that the mother in this book was such a complex individual. On the one hand she has really denied her only daughter the chance to communicate freely with the world around her. By preventing her from learning sign language the book makes it clear that Ruth (her mom) is working on a couple different levels. She’ll adamantly tell you that it’s for Joey’s own good that she not learn to sign. Ruth says it’s restrictive. It takes Charlie to point out that the real reason may be buried deep in Ruth's psyche. On some level Ruth believes that if she allows her daughter to sign, people will come to question how Joey lost her hearing in the first place (a secret that Ruth isn’t eager to share with the world). She just wants her daughter to be “normal” and she’s convinced that if Joey reads lips she’ll attain that. Characters in “Hurt Go Happy” can grow and change, and that’s something you don’t see nearly as much as you should in children’s literature. Nine times out of ten the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad. What’s wonderful about Ruth is that even when she’s repented and allowed Joey to learn sign language she still doesn’t let her daughter know that Sukari was left to her in Charlie’s will. Three steps forward, one step back seems to be the motto with Ruth.
As for Rorby’s grasp of language, if you read her Afterword you’ll see that she sells herself short. In discussing where this book came from she mentions entering a creative-writing class. “I enrolled and learned in short order that I was a dismal failure as a writer – except when I was writing about children or animals, the powerless and dependent.” Ms. Rorby needs to cut herself some slack. Consider the following sentence: “If she took a book, she could completely lose herself in its pages, then look at the waterfall and the leaves trembling in a breeze and fill her sight with sound.” That’s descriptive writing of a particularly nice nature. The book contains the same.
The plot is a bit of a roller coaster ride, but I didn’t think that hurt its power in any way. "Hurt Go Happy" is adamantly anti-animal testing, so bear that in mind as you purchase it. Still, it doesn't get preachy. And though I mentioned earlier that most characters have seveal dimensions to them, the villains in this book, pure and simple, are the people in white lab gear. They hurt animals and they are bad and that's all there is to that. There’s also an odd moment where a homeless man stalks Joey just to see her scared. It’s a peculiar writing choice and probably one that I would have cut out of the book, but Rorby at least makes the distinction early on that not all homeless people are creepy drunks like this guy. Joey and her mother, after all, had to survive while homeless for a while, so there you go.
I would definitely recommend “Hurt Go Happy” alongside Delia Ray’s excellent, “Singing Hands”. The books complement one another with one told by a deaf girl in a hearing family and one a hearing girl in a deaf family. The attitude against signing is also present in both, in spite of the fact that one book is set in the past and one in the present. I consider this book to be one of the small jewels of the 2006 publishing season. Consider yourself lucky if you happy to get your hands on a copy. This is an author to watch out for.
Notes On the Cover: I don’t recall a scene in which Joey decides to henna her hair a brilliant shade of maroon, but maybe I just missed that page. No, I’m kidding you. I actually thought this was a pretty intriguing cover. Joey, for some reason, is the most attractive heroine I’ve seen on the front of a kids book since who knows when. And Sukari looks small, but then the book mentions that her growth was stunted when she was younger anyway. I consider this a pretty danged kid-friendly image, and with the exception of Joey’s strawberry hued locks it seems fairly faithful to the book. Extra points for not having either a disembodied female or sepia-toning as well.