Review: Innocents of Oppression by Nick Sturley

Innocents of Oppression, written by British author Nick Sturley, hails from across the pond, but American Deaf readers can find a lot to identify with here.

The book is set primarily in the late 1970s to the early 1980s at Ewing Hill Park School, an oral boarding school for boys in England. The story looks at the lives of fifty pupils, who secretly use sign language outside of the classroom but are punished for using it in class. The main focus of the book is on the friendship between two boys, Aaron Stephens and Chris Matthaus. While Chris struggles with hiding his emerging homosexuality, Aaron and the other boys struggle with the ongoing debate of sign language versus speech. The school’s administration goes through its own share of growing pains with trying to embrace sign language for the students. Along the way, the topics of homosexuality (a taboo topic in 1970s Britain), and oppression of all types are also discussed, including the often covered-up abuse of deaf students.

The section describing Deaf history in Britain and some of Europe is wonderful, even if it’s presented in an information dump. I learned a lot about Deaf history from across the pond, much of which I didn’t know about before. For example, James Denison wasn’t the only deaf delegate at the 1880 Milan conference- there was also a French deaf delegate. The sorry state of deaf education in Britain from the 1970s to the present is also discussed in some detail.

Although Sturley includes a well-written description of Gallaudet College, American readers may be puzzled at a few sections of the story taking place in Washington, DC. Sturley’s unfamiliarity with the American educational system threw me off a bit. For example, the president of Gallaudet College, Merrill, takes the principal of Ewing Hill Park School to MSSD as a comparison. Merrill goes on to describe MSSD as serving ages 11 to 16 (typical for a British secondary school), instead of saying it’s for those in grades 9 to 12, as would be typical for an American secondary or high school. A character is also described as majoring in a master’s degree at Gallaudet, instead of saying he went there for graduate school. The book is so well-written otherwise, though, so these mistakes don’t detract much from the story.

Overall, this book is a good read.  The story has a close and intimate relationship with its characters, digging deeply into the background of many of the students and some of the teachers, as well as a few parents. There are almost no flat characters here and most characters are more than they appear at first. If you were a student during the oralism days and remember having to resort to using sign language in secret, you’ll enjoy this, as no doubt you’ll see much of your own story here. This is also recommended for all readers interested in a look at modern Deaf history and culture that’s almost the same as, yet different from, their own perspective.

Written by Kelsey Young

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