By Jean F. Andrews
Set in southeast Texas, Dr. Steve Baldwin crafted a briskly paced murder mystery filled with family violence, addiction, bullying, blackmail, deceit and greed, murder, and incest. In the early 1950’s, stuck in an unsympathetic hearing world filled with ignorance, misinformation, and shame, Joanne Webster, an 18 year-old girl who is deaf has few options but to be her family’s maid. She manages to find solace in long walks in the piney east Texas woods picking flowers living in her own dream world surviving by her own instincts with a few pitying friends and family members to console her. In author, Steve Baldwin’s words, “Joanne was a lonely soul craving meaningful two-way communication.” Baldwin deftly creates memorable characters from Joanne, a naive deaf girl, to the annoying and unscrupulous Zenith hearing aid dealer who tries to sell a hearing aid to Joanne’s family, to uncouth bullying youths, to a jealous older sister, to a police system that is incompetent in finding Joanne’s killer, to a court system that is too hurried to provide justice, and to a deceitful and greedy doctor. But sixty years later, a “Lone Ranger,” comes to town. A young and handsome Deaf doctoral student with social justice leanings takes it upon himself to find our more facts about the case. He meets a sign language interpreter and together they solve the mystery of the identity of Joanne’s cowardly killer.
Baldwin’s story will not only captivate murder mystery fans, but also deaf studies enthusiasts. A prolific writer and historian by professional training, Baldwin captures the history of treatment of deaf people in the 1950’s and how deaf people were often hidden in their homes and not provided education. He balances his deaf characters from an illiterate deaf girl to a highly literate Deaf doctoral student who is bilingual in American Sign Language and English, so Baldwin does not leave the readers with Deaf stereotypes as many novels do. He also shows that during this era, hearing families did not learn sign language so deaf persons, like Joanne, were socially isolated from daily family life and had to rely on gestures and body language. To further depict society’s response, Baldwin showed how Deaf people were often made fun of and thought to be less intelligent than hearing people, when in reality there were just as intelligent but simply couldn’t hear.
Coincidentally when Dr. Baldwin told me about his book, Backspace, I was deep into my own academic writing updating a textbook and reviewing literature on visual attention and deafness by neuroscientists whose laboratory experiments revealed that deaf people-both signers and non-signers have more enhanced peripheral vision. (You will see in the story that Joanne, a non-signer was able to detect jumping squirrels and flying birds in her side-space quicker than John, her hearing companion saw them.). So, as my fingers turned the e-book pages, I was delighted to see how Dr. Baldwin cleverly wove this science into his story. Readers will quickly understand how space figures into Joanne’s demise.
I highly recommend this book. With a click of your mouse, you can buy it through Amazon for the price of $3.99, download to your Kindle and begin reading it in less than a minute.
Jean F. Andrews is a Distinguished Professor Emerita of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education at Lamar University.