I’ve just finished reading Mindfield by John F. Egbert, who kindly sent me a copy. I thought this was an excellent book, and I think it might be a good way to introduce issues surrounding deafhood and deaf culture via an enjoyable piece of fiction. As good as some other books are, some people just aren’t the sort to wade through anything non-fiction.
The premise of the book is pretty simple: in an act of bioterrorism, a virus that ultimately causes deafness is spread throughout the United States. It details the civilian and government response. Parts of it were hard to read, because the government decides the best way to handle all the newly deaf people (and contain the virus) is of course to put them into internment camps, and I can all too easily see that happening. We are, in fact, pretty much already doing this to certain populations. I think it’s a pretty realistic depiction of what could happen given this scenario.
I highly recommend this book. You can get a copy of it by going here to order it.
Warning, spoilers ahead:
There were two aspects to this that I thought were particularly well done. First would be the tendency of deaf people congregated together to start trying to communicate manually. Kept apart, they’d probably continue to try to function orally, but by being put together, that falls away. Second was the description of the oralist perspective in the government’s determination to try and reeducate everyone to lipread and undergo speech therapy. This turns the entire thing into a metaphor for how education of the deaf has been done — a metaphor that is there but not beaten over the reader’s head.
I liked the details given on Nathan’s changing perceptions as he learns sign language. I found the various characters who “disappeared into the hills” entirely believable. I would have liked to have seen a bit more in the deaf camps, for example “Hanna and Maude” are introduced, but we don’t hear about them again except once or twice in reference. I would have liked to see something showing how especially the children in the camps start to just run away with either ASL introduced by the few deaf adults in the camp or with evolving homesign a la the Nicaraguan children. I thought the release of Nathan near the end was way too quick. I would think he would languish in limbo for years as the government tried to find its collective ass with its hands. Although I have no problem believing the sort of half-assed investigation that led them to think he was involved. Still, if all the stuff I would have liked to seen were included, the book would be 50 pounds and everyone would run screaming at the sight of it 😉
There was one line that did make me laugh, along the lines of “Republicans believe the less intrusion into people’s lives, the better,” which is the position of the president in this book. And then his administration proceeds to declare martial law, stop people in the street, hunt others down, pop them into internment camps and so on. Just a wee bit of poking at the current political situation? Nice touch.
I only had one real quibble about this book — I’m not sure that three million new deaf people would upset the U.S. that much. Perhaps I’m too cynical but I think three million would be easily marginalized and rendered invisible with very little effort. Perhaps part of the argument is that the fear of contagion was at least as large a component as the number affected. But consider that the total population is about 350 million right now, so this would only be one out of a hundred. The illegal immigrant population is estimated at 8-12 million, and how many illegal immigrants do you know personally? In 1918, the U.S. population was about 100 million, and 500,000 were killed by influenza, and 20 million were left sick. But this was minor; I could simply think instead 30 million or whatever.