Review of All He Knew

All He Knew
by Helen Frost
Intermediate, Middle School    Farrar    272 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-374-31299-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31300-5    $9.99

In free-verse poems, Frost tells the story of Henry, deafened by disease in 1937 at age four. Because Henry is deemed “unteachable” by the School for the Deaf, his family is pressured to consign him at age six to a residential institution for the “feeble-minded,” a dumping ground for those with a variety of cognitive and physical issues. Through his own intelligence and good nature, Henry makes friends and survives this place of scarcity and lovelessness. And once the United States enters World War II, a compassionate conscientious objector joins the staff, bringing hope for Henry’s return to his family. Frost’s short poems sketch Henry’s story through clips of his experiences, conveying his limited understanding of what is going on around him. But she also frames his experience within a larger context — of the family that is too poor and cowed to care for him, and of the role conscientious objectors played during the war. This is a quick read, full of historical richness and glimpses of the cruelty and abuse so common in the institutions of the era. Frost’s interpretation is softened by the hopeful conclusion of Henry’s return home and his introduction to American Sign Language.

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Deirdre Baker
Deirdre Baker
Deirdre F. Baker, a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine and the Toronto Star, teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto. The author of Becca at Sea (Groundwood), she is currently at work on a sequel—written in the past tense.

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