True Biz by Sara Novic is an enlightening coming-of-age tale that takes place in a boarding school for Deaf students.
Sometimes fiction is pure escapism and other times, you do learn about another culture and a way of life. Fiction can serve as a teaching tool for those type of stories. True Biz falls in line with that.
I know for a fact I have not read or watched a film focused on Deaf culture (I haven’t seen the Oscar winner CODA yet). When I read that Reese selected a story focused on Deaf students, I was definitely curious to check it out. And I’m glad I did!
I learned so much. From the debate between the use of American Sign Language (ASL) and cochlear implants, the history behind Black American Sign Language (BASL) as well as the discrimination Black Deaf students have faced and much more. This story was equal parts coming-of-age but also provided plenty of education too.
What’s the Story About
The story takes place at the River Valley School for the Deaf—a boarding school located in Ohio. We mainly follow three characters: February, the hearing headmistress, a CODA (child of Deaf adult(s)) who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both; Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another Deaf person before and Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing.
This is a story of sign language and lip-reading, disability and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy.
I thought Charlie had the strongest character arc as she goes from feeling quite isolated both among the hearing and the Deaf to becoming much more comfortable with who she is and learning to stand up for what she believes in. She received a cochlear implant when she was very young but it’s never really worked properly. When she got it, the push was not to learn sign language as various medical professionals believed that it would impair her ability to absorb verbal language.
But with it not working properly, Charlie has been left in a limbo of sorts—somewhat able to listen and communicate but not fully. Her story was pretty heartbreaking at times.
On the surface, Austin has it all—unlike Charlie, ASL was completely embraced as he comes from a prominent Deaf family. He’s never felt uncomfortable or unsure in a day in his life, until his baby sister is born of hearing. His dad can hear and it immediately creates tension as everything he was told, suddenly comes into question.
I would say the weakest character is February. It’s never really explained why her marriage has gotten stale (and maybe that’s the point). I wanted more of her life as a CODA and the decision to work with Deaf students. Maybe I missed it but I just didn’t feel her storyline was as well-rounded as the other two.
One reason February didn’t have as interesting as a storyline could be the result of the story reading like a YA (young adult) novel. While it deals with adult topics, politics and numerous debates both within the Deaf and hearing communities, in the end, this is about teenagers—hooking up, fighting with parents, etc.
I don’t read YA, really ever, so I will say that aspect of it took me a bit to get into the story. It’s just not really a genre I gravitate towards. However, the focus on the Deaf community and the way in which the author wove in plenty of education really makes this one stand out for me.
While a slow start, mainly with the focus on YA, I still feel True Biz is a standout novel. Even if it’s a bit uneven in parts, I think this is well worth a read—especially the parts that serve as an education about Deaf culture.
For book clubs, check out my True Biz book club questions here.