Reviews

Link: Let me Speak,
by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

An Acute and Fully Realized Portrait of Teenage Stuttering

Reviewed by Darrell M. Dodge, MA, CCC-SLP

For sheer verbal facility, no modern novelist can hold a candle to David Mitchell. That he is a person who stutters should be no surprise.  Many stutterers are verbally precocious as children, and, despite their speech challenges, remain so throughout life. The particular skill that David Mitchell displays in this book, which has just been issued in a paperback version, is to reproduce an authentic, English middleclass teenage voice and maintain it consistently through a baker's dozen of chapters that describe the diverse experiences of the fictional Jason Taylor, from January 1982 to January '83. Further, he fills Jason's narration with imagery and precise observations that would be beyond a 13-year old to produce, and still pulls it off. We share in the subterfuge that these are Jason's perceptions (perhaps a year later), channeled by Mitchell:

"The moon-rocky fourth garden was a spillage of concrete meringue and gravel. Ornaments everywhere. Not just gnomes, but Egyptian sphinxes, Smurfs, fairies, sea otters, Pooh Bear and Piglet and Eeyore, Jimmy Carter's face, you name it.  Himalayas divided the garden down the middle at shoulder height. This sculpted garden'd  once been a local legend and so had its creator, Arthur Evesham. The Malvern Gazeteer'd printed photos with the headline THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE GNOME. Miss Throckmorton'd brought our class to have a look. A smiley man'd served us all Ribena and iced biscuits with pin men doing sports on them. Arthur Evesham'd died of a heart attack a few days after our visit, in fact. That was the first time I'd heard 'heart attack' and I thought it meant your heart suddenly went crazy and attacked the rest of your body, like a ferret down a rabbit warren."

That Jason is a somewhat unreliable narrator is a fact we're reminded of with humor every once in a while.  Here he's describing one of the "tools" used by his speech therapist:

"Then Mrs. de Roo got out her Metro Gnome. Metro Gnomes are upside down pendulums without the clock part. They tock rhythms. They're small, which could be why they're called gnomes."

Mitchell's craftsmanship and wit is present here in more playful form than his last novel, the tour de force, Cloud Atlas. Each chapter is a complete story unto itself, with an impressive internal consistency.  For example, "Rocks" opens with Jason's shock over loss of the Sheffield during the Falkland's War between Britain and Argentina, a naval fight over a "Rock" that interplays with a war Jason's parents have over the construction of a garden pond in their back yard. In each case, all victories are Pyrrhic.

Some Minor Reservations

As the passages above indicate, Jason is portrayed as a lively, pleasant kid, with a kind of perky love of life and an acute -- if delightfully immature -- intelligence. This is one of the strongest elements of BSG. While affirmations that children who stutter are "more than their stuttering" can sound preachy and false, the demonstration of this in Mitchell's story makes the point more efficiently.  But therein lies one of the drawbacks of using a book like BSG as a definitive study of teenage stuttering.  Jason Taylor is portrayed as someone whose experience of stuttering is compartmentalized to a great extent. His explanations of how he avoids stuttering are pretty matter-of-fact. He'll do anything to avoid being called the "school stutterboy" and that's that. There's no shame in this avoidance for him. He has even objectified his stuttering by giving it the descriptive name "hangman." There are many teens, however, who have a much darker experience, who experience shame when they avoid and are isolated to a much greater extent.  This is not to say that teens who are in that situation will not benefit from reading this novel. But it may become a negative experience and lack credibility for some teens who may blame themselves for not being able to be as upbeat as Jason. (After all, Mitchell is viewing this childhood from his position as a successful adult whose stuttering is not a big issue.) For this reason, it would be important for parents or therapists to encourage teens to talk about their impressions of the book and help them use its example as Mitchell undoubtedly intended: as an encouragement and a ray of hope, and as a way to reframe their stuttering as a challenge they can overcome.

As a novel about the private experience of growing up as a stutterer, one couldn't  want much more than this. Mitchell manages to dramatize just about every type of experience that stuttering boys have: confusing relationships with peers, teasing and bullying, classroom catastrophes, extra-awkward interactions with girls, tedious and annoying interactions with speech therapists, self-doubts that undermine the growing confidence that comes with maturation, and the persistent and at times manic obsession with hiding ones stuttering from the world.  The novel is so authentic that this actually brings up an issue that will make BSG a tough sell for some parents: teenage boys are a whole lot less innocent than many parents think they are. The "F-word" is resplendently here throughout and the language is sometimes frankly scatological.  It is a relief to read a novel that admits and actually celebrates the intense sexual attraction that young boys have to girls.

As a boy who was lucky enough to grow up in places with ready access to relatively undeveloped areas, one of my favorite chapters is "Bridal Path," in which Jason sets out one April morning to discover the "mysterious end" of a trail that may date from Roman times. Along the way, he encounters a crotchety landowner who pretends to sic his dogs on Jason; a group of school-mates engaged in male power games; the sexy teen Dawn Madden, who toys with Jason, thoroughly befuddling him; and an open-air tryst between an older teenage couple, one a boy who will soon be killed in the Falklands War.

Jason's Hangman

While stuttering and its persistent effect on Jason is present throughout the novel, there are two chapters in particular, Hangman and Maggot, that portray Jason's adolescent stuttering in vivid detail. In Hangman, Jason describes the event that marked the emergence of his stuttering, describes his beliefs about (and inner experience of) stuttering, and introduces us to the ministrations of Mrs. de Roo, his speech therapist.  The emergence of Jason's stuttering during a classroom game of hangman is a set piece gruesomely familiar to anyone who stutters:

"Miss Throckmorton said, "Yes, Jason?" and that was when my life divided itself into Before Hangman and After Hangman. The word "nightingale" kaboomed in my skull but it just wouldn't come out. The n got out okay, but the harder I forced the rest, the tighter the noose got. I remember Lucy Steads whispering to Angela Bullock, stifling giggles. I remember Robin South staring at this bizarre sight. I'd've done the same if it hadn't been me."

Unable to continue, Jason claims he doesn't know the word and concocts a personality for his stuttering:

"It must've been around then ... that my stammering took on the appearance of a hangman. Pike lips, broken nose, rhino cheeks, red eyes 'cause he never sleeps ... But it's his hands, not his face, that I really feel him by. His snakey fingers that sink inside my tongue and squeeze my windpipe so nothing'll work."

The Hangman chapter dramatizes the excruciating dread that many stutterers have as weeks-in-the-future speaking challenges loom closer and closer; in this case a form assembly speech that he mentions to his speech therapist -- who intervenes at the last minute in the name of building his confidence.

Jason's parents, whose marriage is in the process of melting down, are not much help. Jason decides to tell his mother about his assembly speech, but stutters and hesitates, and she hurries him off to his school bus. Mitchell understands that parental anger, impatience or nagging is not required to open the trapdoor beneath the stutterer. Mere disappointment will do:

"If I stammer with Dad, he gets that face he had when he got his Black & Decker Workmate home and found it was minus a crucial pack of screws. Hangman just loves that face."

The "Maggot" chapter describes, in realistic fashion, the complexities of school-yard bullying of children who stutter. The realism resides in the way Jason's tormentors not only ridicule his stuttering, but work to undermine his confidence and self-image by attacking his maturity and humanity. They ridicule him for attending a film with his mother and call him "maggot" before imitating his stuttering. Unlike many stuttering children, however, Jason finally manages to toss back some telling insults at the bullies without stuttering. And he has plenty of chums to back him up.  If only more stuttering kids had that kind of weaponry and support at their disposal.

Jason's Therapist

Mrs. de Roo is imbued by Mitchell with insight that's probably drawn from his experience as a recovering stutterer. Though her techniques (metronome speech, etc.) are a bit outdated, her (and Mitchell's) philosophy for recovery is excellent:

"Don't put your faith in a miracle cure. In the vast majority of cases, progress doesn't come from trying to kill a speech defect. Try to will it out of existence, it'll just will itself back stronger. Right? No, it's a question -- and this might sound nutty -- of understanding it, of coming to a working accommodation with it, of respecting it, of not fearing it. Yis, it'll flare up from time to time, but if you know why it flares, you'll know how to douse what makes it flare up.  Back in Durban I had a friend who'd once been an alcoholic. One day I asked him how he'd cured himself. My friend said he's done no such thing. I said, 'What do you mean? You haven't touched a drop in three years!' He said all he'd done was become a teetotal alcoholic. That's my goal. To help people change from being stammering stammerers into nonstammering stammerers."

Black Swan Green is an acute and fully realized portrait of a teenager dealing with the challenges of stuttering. It should be read by every parent of a child who stutters, every speech-language pathologist (SLP) who treats stuttering, and every public and charter school teacher and counselor.  Adults and older teens who stutter will find it to be a richly rewarding read, as will younger teens and even pre-teens. However, prescribing this book for younger teen readers would not be advisable without discussing it with parents and caregivers. This recommendation is made not for the sake of the children, who would not be harmed in any way by the content of this book, but because of professional liability concerns in this day and age.


 

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1994 - 2007 Darrell M. Dodge, MA CCC-SLP

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Last Updated: Monday, March 26, 2007