CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 16. . . . April 11, 2003
Right then I knew what I was going to do. I wanted to step on the runners of a sled, to get so cold my fingers would feel heavy as a sock full of pennies and as fragile as a china cup. I wanted to breathe in the broken glass air and get so tired my mind would leave me and I wouldn't try to get it back. I longed to run a team of dogs through a world where the sun just gave up after a couple of hours. When the finish line was in sight, I would turn around and go back there. I'd go back to where I had just been. I'd keep the dogs and the miles in front of me. I'd be a part of something bigger, where I wouldn't miss mom or dad. I wouldn't be the silly little deaf girl. My world would stop falling apart.
Scott Miller, the owner of 19 sled dogs, has incorporated his love of dogs and "mushing" into Signs of Winning, his first novel for young people. The unique topic, combined with Miller's refreshing style, provides an entertaining read.
In addition to the usual problems associated with adolescence, Kaitlin, the story's central character, struggles with a number of other obstacles as well. To begin with, she is deaf. As one would expect, this impairment sets up a communication roadblock that isolates Kaitlin from other people. But equally frustrating and discouraging for her is the way many people assume her deafness automatically makes her a mental cripple. The other problem she must deal with is the loss of her parents. Not only is she grieving for her mother who was killed in a car crash the year before, but she is also mourning the loss of her father who has retreated into a shell since his wife's death.
Kaitlin sees herself as having little control over her life, a situation she is determined to change. The venue for this change is dog-sledding. Though she is young, she is an avid sledder with aspirations for greatness. And though her father supports her, his efforts and enthusiasm are not as vigorous as Kaitlin would like. Enter her Uncle George, also a convicted "musher," who provides Kaitlin with the training and the dogs she needs in order to improve. After winning a big race, Kaitlin expresses her intention to enter an even bigger one and willfully barrels ahead with her plans despite the objections of her uncle and father. Her ill-advised willfulness results in a disaster that almost costs Kaitlin her life.
Miller has written a good story. He has an easy style that carries the reader breezily along. His dialogue is realistic, and he has a refreshing way of turning a phrase. The plot holds together well, and the final action scene is suspenseful and engaging.
The only reservation this reader has concerns Kaitlin's deafness. Though this is a continuous thread, it isn't really a contributing factor to the story, and Kaitlin seems unbelievably well adjusted. Certainly she is deaf, as is her friend, Sarah, but Kaitlin's inability to hear doesn't keep her from achieving her goals. Hearing impaired people, especially those who have been born deaf, don't use language the same way that hearing people do, and idioms and other figurative aspects of speech pose real problems and frustrations for them. However, the only time communication seems to be an issue for Kaitlin is when George has a heart attack and she must use the telephone. One wonders if the story would have been radically different had Kaitlin been able to hear.
Aside from that, Signs of Winning is definitely worth picking up. Too bad the publisher didn't go over the page proofs more diligently. Numerous word omissions, misspellings, and other glitches detract from the smooth reading of the story.
Kristin Butcher lives in Victoria, BC, and writes for children.
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