by Frances Itani

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The internationally bestselling, “gorgeously moving, old-fashioned novel” about a woman’s life, loves, and self-discovery on the eve the Great War (O, The Oprah Magazine).
Grania O’Neill, the daughter of hardworking Irish hoteliers in small-town Ontario, is five years old when she emerges from a bout of scarlet fever profoundly deaf—suddenly sealed off from the world that was just beginning to open for her. While her guilt-plagued mother cannot accept it, Grania finds allies in her grandmother and her older sister, Tress. It isn’t until she’s enrolled in the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, that Grania truly begins to thrive. In time, she falls for Jim Lloyd, a hearing man with whom Grania creates a new emotional vocabulary that encompasses both sound and silence.

But just two weeks after their wedding, Jim leaves to serve as a stretcher bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders. During this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania’s letters back and forth—both real and imagined—attempt to sustain their young love in a world as brutal as it is hopeful.

Winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, Frances Itani’s debut novel is a “brilliantly lucid and masterfully sustained” ode to language—how it can console, imprison, and liberate—with “the integrity of an achieved artistic vision, the kind of power that is generally associated with the gracious, crystalline prose of Grace Paley, the flagrantly good, good lines of Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden’s poetry” (Kaye Gibbons, author of A Virtuous Woman).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555846541
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,128,516
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Deafening marks Frances Itani’s American debut. Published previously only in Canada, Frances Itani is the author of four acclaimed short story collections, published poetry, a children’s book and has written stories, drama and features for CBC Radio. Passionate about learning and education, she has taught creative writing at universities, schools, libraries and workshops across Canada and in Europe and holds a BA in Psychology, an MA in English Literature, and did a graduate year of nursing. She has been learning American Sign Language (ASL), and practices Tai Chi and Qigong. She has been involved in humanitarian work all of her adult life, most recently as a volunteer and on the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Deaf Centre.

Read an Excerpt


A deaf child will learn 300 to 500 words in a year if at all intelligent. First, the child is taught the sounds and then how to combine them."

Lecture, The Toronto Fair

Deseronto, Ontario


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.

Supper, like all meals, is eaten at the big oval table — the family-only table — in the private corner of the hotel dining room, next door. All through the meal Grania thinks of the brown and white calf and the girl in the blue dress. She sees them in her head when she walks along Main Street with Mamo in the early evening, and when she lies in her bed later, eyes open in the dark.

"Bothafraid," her voice says softly. She doesn't want Tress, across the room, to hear. A breeze wisps through the window sash above her sister's bed.

Tress's window faces the slope of roof that tilts towards the upper balcony of the hotel. From up here, house and hotel appear to be joined, though they are not; there is a roofed, open passageway between. A second bedroom window looks over Main Street and the Bay of Quinte, a large bay that slips in from the vast great Lake Ontario, which is part of the border between Canada and United States. A single maple tree grows up past this front window of the girls' room.

Almost every family activity takes place on the short stretch of road that is the Main Street of town. To the east, not far past Naylor's Theatre, Main Street ends where land meets bay. The western end of Main, where Grania lives, tips up to join the old York Road, now Dundas Street, which leads west through Mohawk Indian lands, and on to the city of Belleville, twenty miles farther along the bay. To the east, the same road passes through the northern part of town and leads to Napanee, Kingston, and the St. Lawrence River. Much of the town of Deseronto lies below this road, on the edge of the bay.

The town is like an overgrown village, really, but the Rathbun industries have been here for years and have made it a company town that boasts a railway, and steamers, and numerous enterprises sprawled along the waterfront. Many of the factories and stacks of lumber, the mill, the coal sheds, the railway car shops, the tracks, and the turntable for the engines, lie between Main Street and the shore. On both sides of Main there is a mixture of houses and places of business: Telegraph Office, confectioner, baker, grocer around the corner, Chinese laundry with steam-covered windows, gentlemen's tailor, general store, Tribune printing office, post office with its high clock tower, barber on the other side of the street, Naylor's Theatre towards the end, harness shop, fire hall and hardware. On the back streets are the undertaker, more grocers and bakeries, police and library in one building — library is where Aunt Maggie works — community halls and churches, and the billiard hall. Mamo names the buildings when she walks with Grania through the town, but Grania knows that she is permitted to visit only grocer, butcher and post office, when she is on her own.

Father's hotel is always busy because it is on the corner of Mill Street and Main, directly across from the railway station and the wharf, where the steamers dock.

In the girls' upstairs room in the house beside the hotel, there is no window over Grania's bed. Her side is wall. Wall on the right, windows front and left. She has learned right and left from Mamo. She thinks of the Sunday book and the new words beneath the picture. Neither calf nor girl will ever move towards each other. They will be waiting for her when she wakes in the morning and opens the cover. She will stare at them and there they will be, face to face, looking at each other on the page.

"You're smart," Mamo tells her. They are on the veranda and Mamo has brought the rocker outside. Mamo is relentless. She articulates firmly and carefully into the air, and Grania is expected to keep up. "You could read lips before you were deaf. When your parents wanted to talk — grownup talk — they had to turn their backs to whisper because you were so nosy. Do what you've always done. Before you were sick. You're the one in the family who sees."

Grania watches Mamo point to her own eyes. "Since you were a tiny baby, you've seen what's around you. As soon as you could raise your head, you peered up over the side of your cradle." She laughs, thinking of this.

Grania knows when Mamo is talking about baby times. She can tell from the softening in Mamo's face.

"Did I have thick sense?"

"Thick what?"

"When I was a baby. Aunt Maggie says I have thick sense. I know what she will do before she knows."

Mamo smiles. When she smiles there is an up-and-down line between her eyebrows. "I see." She holds her arms open and Grania walks into them and waits while Mamo smacks a kiss onto her forehead.

Mamo turns sideways from the waist and draws a six in the air with her index finger. Grania watches the number assume its invisible shape.

"Six. Six — TH sense, not thick. If you have it, you shouldn't be talking about it."

Now Mamo's pointing finger makes a circle. "I'm going to turn you around — keep your eyes open, wide open. When you stop, tell me what you see. Understand?"

A game. Grania understands. She feels Mamo's hands on her shoulders and allows herself to be turned. Once. Twice. When she stops she is facing the end of her own veranda, looking between the pillars that support the hotel balcony, a dozen feet away.

She turns back to Mamo.

"Now look at me," Mamo says. "Use voice, no hand signals. Keep the language you already have. What do you see?"

"Wood post." This comes out high.

"Bring your voice down." Mamo lowers her palm through the air. She's using hand signals. "Colour?"

"White. Uncle Am and boys painted." Two of her cousins had come to town from a farm near Bompa Jack's, to help paint. That night, they were allowed to sleep in an upstairs room of Father's hotel.

"The boys painted."

"Not Bernard. He worked in dining room on paint day."

"What else?"


"A man. Who?"

"Mr. Conlin. Beside telegraph office." She has also seen the Telegraph sign nailed between two poles, but she doesn't mention this.


Grania shrugs.

"Look again."

One more look. She tries to focus, remember. Turns back. "Funny hat. He wears the hat inside the post office where he works."

"Good girl. Colour?"

"Like coal bin. The coal bin."

"What else?"

"Hat is round like Uncle Am's but with a hole punched in."

"I know," Mamo says — to herself this time — she's forgetting the game. "He won't replace it. He's too proud." She sits forward. "The fight was a few years back and he won't buy a new hat."


"Ah, you read my lips even when I talk to myself. He helped your father get some rowdies out. They came in on the steamer. They weren't Irish, those rowdies. Well, they did manage to get them out, sure enough." She leans back again in the rocker. "Someone must have spilled salt that day."


"Means a fight. Never mind. Look again. Is there a band on the hat?" Mamo's fingers curl to create the width of a band. More hand signals.

"Dark." Grania's hands instinctively cross in front of her face, semaphore flags. She cannot know that two years later she will be taught the same sign.

"What is Mr. Conlin doing?"

This time, Grania doesn't need a second look. "Wait for Cora to pass because Cora is nosy. Then chew tobacco and go back to post office. The post office."

"You're the one who's the nosy parker."

Jack Conlin turns in their direction, and waves.

* * *

At night, Grania tiptoes across the rag rug, counting six steps between beds. She crouches by her sister's bed, waiting. Tress has told her that the springs creak and will give them both away if Grania climbs in beside her. Mother and Father sleep in the next room and Mother will be listening.

"No talking," Mother has warned. "Grania is not to leave her bed." It was to Tress that she said this when she came to say goodnight, but Grania saw the frown on Mother's face and read her lips before she finished speaking.

There is something else Grania has to consider in the darkness — the walls. Aunt Maggie, who lives with Uncle Am in the tower apartment above the post office, told Grania that the walls have ears. Mamo agreed that this was true, and she and Aunt Maggie smiled while Grania weighed the information. Every night now when Grania goes to bed, she scrunches as far away from the wall as she can because she does not want the wall to hear. She does not want to fall into the place where the wall swallows sound.

A shadow appears at the front window where the branches of the maple stretch up. Things that move, things that don't move. The shadow slides across the oval mirror with the reed trim, and across the framed picture of daffodils. It slides past the washstand and jug, and above the bureau and over the sampler Mother stitched when she was fourteen years old, lines from "The Breastplate of Saint Patrick." God's eye for my seeing, God's ear for my hearing.

The shadow slips out of the room. "Watch for things that move," Mamo has taught Grania. "Watching will keep you safe."

Shadows sometimes take Grania by surprise. Under the moon there are shadows. There are times when she walks outside with Mamo or Bernard in the evening, and electric lights shine out of a window and make not one, but two shadows that glide beside her. She is startled by this, and keeps a close watch until the shadows merge again into one.

From her crouched position on the floor she allows herself to sink to the rag rug. In the same movement — holding back, even as her body leans forward — her shoulder nudges the edge of her sister's bed. Tress's hand slides out from beneath the sheets and slips into her own. Tress shifts some of the blankets over the side and bunches them to cover Grania's shoulders. The two hold hands and sleep, one on, one off the bed, all through the night.

Mamo takes her by the hand and leads her to the clock in the front hall, the one that was carried in the burlap bag with the wide shoulder strap, the bag stitched by Grandfather O'Shaughnessy himself. He carried the clock all the way from the beautiful land called Ireland, where he and Mamo were born in the same town, and grew up and loved each other and married. When Grandfather died on the ship and was buried at sea near the coast of their new country, it had fallen to Mamo to carry the clock. When they reached Quebec, she and her four children, two daughters and two sons — Grania's mother, Agnes, the eldest — hoisted the O'Shaughnessy trunk, the bundles, the clock in the burlap bag, and left the ship. They staggered to shore while their legs gave out beneath them. As weak as they were, they were glad to have their feet on land, even though they were facing a second journey. They travelled over land to Mystic, Quebec, where Mamo had a cousin, the only person she knew from the old country. It was later, when Mamo's sons were old enough to work and her daughters to marry, that they moved to Deseronto on Lake Ontario. All of this happened before Grania was born.


Excerpted from "Deafening"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Itani Writes, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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Deafening 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous 18 days ago
I read the book Deafening, by Frances Itani. This work of historical fiction reflects on the life of a deaf girl and the world around her. Grania O’Neil, who lived in Canada, underwent many life changes and hardships. From being sent away for school to constantly worrying about her husband away at war, Grania has been through it all. This novel focuses on the development of strong relationships, and unfolds the art and importance of communication. Reading Deafening has opened my eyes to Deaf culture in an older time period, and has allowed me to understand the complexity of language; spoken and unspoken. Grania was born in the late nineteenth century to her hotel-owning family in Deseronto, Ontario. At the age of five, Scarlet fever robbed Grania of her hearing. Her mother took the blame, and felt an immense amount of guilt for the whole situation. When Grania turned nine, her family made the hard decision to send her to the Ontario School for the Deaf. Being far from the ones she loved most, including her older sister Tress, and her grandmother Mamo, was a massive struggle for Grania. Once graduated, she began working in the Belleville hospital as a nurse. There, she met and fell in love with a hearing man, Jim. The two of them married, but soon after, Jim was sent to war to serve with the ambulance corps. His time there was brutal, and filled with many horrors and losses. Grania and Jim wrote letters to keep in touch, which kept their hopes from dying over a long three years apart. Tress’ husband Kenan was injured, and returned home from war unable to speak with “ dead arm and a scarred half face.” (page 294). Later, Grania became severely ill with the Spanish flu. Many people and loved ones were taken by this deadly virus. After years of struggle and persistence, finally, Jim and Grania were together again. I think this book is very well written. The way events flow and characters change keeps the reader engaged throughout the whole story. My favorite part of this novel is the way that relationships develop and strengthen. Through language barriers, hardships, and distance, love and support remain constant. This book also gives a great look into how the Deaf World was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In chapter three, Grania’s doctor says “‘The girl is totally deaf,’...’There is nothing I can do. Scarlet fever has done this to thousands. She should be sent to a school with other deaf children.’” (page 70). From appointments, to schooling, to romance, Grania’s deafness was a huge part of her life. Each theme of this story has great significance, making it so incredible. This novel looks at ways of communication on many levels. In ASL class, we have learned and discussed about the history of American Sign Language itself. In earlier times, the language was hated on and often times viewed as a joke. When Grania was sent to the School for the Deaf, she was taught both to sign and speak. Later, that school banned signing all together. I believe that this fictional story accurately depicts Deaf culture and history. The daily life Grania experienced and the hardships she underwent are very similar to what some deaf people go through today. Overall, I would highly recommend this wonderfully expressed story. Those who enjoy learning about Deaf culture/history and the reality/impacts of war would especially appreciate this read. I genuinely loved watching the relationship between Grania and Jim develop, and found the ways
spacepotatoes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was hoping to enjoy this and be moved by it more than I was in the end. It was well written and the first portion of the novel was very engaging, the characters were likeable and I found Grania's experience growing up deaf very interesting. Once the story shifted to WWI and Jim's (Grania's husband) experiences in France as a stretcher bearer, I lost my connection. I'm not sure how to describe it, the only thing I can think of is that Itani's way of writing the WWI experience didn't feel very authentic. Sometimes it felt like things cobbled together from various history books. I think I also had a hard time caring about Jim because the story doesn't really say too much about how his relationship with Grania developed before they got married and his voice never felt totally distinct from hers. Overall, it was an enjoyable read and there were several touching moments in it, but it dragged after the first third and never completely picked up again.
blackbelt.librarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An enjoyable book overall. I loved reading about Grania's time at her school, and when she fell in love with Jim. There was too much devoted to Jim's experience in Europe, but it didn't take away from the book too much. I have relatives who are deaf and I've also worked a little bit with the National Theater of the Deaf...I found this book interesting & like a small window into deaf history & culture
Miche11e on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Grania was born in Deseronto Ontario and became deaf at age 5 following scarlet fever. She evenutally goes to the School for the Deaf in Belleville. She meets and marries and young man, who goes away to fight in the war for 3 years. He comes home.That's the story. The descriptions of being deaf were the most interesting parts of the book. Otherwise, it didn't much appeal to me, but I did read the entire book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you liked All the Light You Cannot See you will love this incredible book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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+++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Felt more like a teaching lesson than a novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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'...
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.