Pantomime by Christopher Sebela
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Out: July 20, 2021
This is an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist team-up story but with the notable twist of it being a group of teenagers who are students at an academy for the deaf. That’s not the only variation on the basic premise, there is also something off about the lead character, Haley, that is gradually revealed over the course of the volume. A blurb-advertised novelty of the book is that it features American Sign Language. Without the element of time / movement, mostly what this does is serve as a reminder that the main characters are deaf.
The premise is that a sister and brother, Haley and Max, are orphaned and end up being sent to Wayfair Academy, a boarding school for the deaf and deaf-mutes. In time, Haley becomes the ringleader of this troupe of teenaged burglars, starting with a retrieval by theft, during which they only “steal” confiscated electronics that belong to the students, themselves. We can see that Haley is drawn to crime, and is always on the lookout for a problem that they might “solve” through theft, as when one of the kids can’t afford tuition because her parents are in legal trouble. However, during these fledgling criminal days, one can’t see yet whether Haley is just a risk-loving teenager going through an adventure-seeking phase, or something else entirely. Generally, she is presented as a sympathetic character (disabled and orphaned nerd – how much more sympathetic could one get,) but we see these glints of crazy. The first real burglary-for-profit that they commit (for the previously-mentioned tuition fund) turns out to be the house of a local crime lord. From this point, they get sucked into working for this man, a man they call “The Manager.” The balance of the story is about whether they can get out from under the thumb of this thug who was their first true victim.
The story is clever, played out as an elaborate and risky plan in a manner appropriate of heist stories. The character development feels muddled as one is reading. While, by the book’s end, it seems quite clear who Haley really is, the fact that it’s light years away from who we would have guessed in the opening panels means that the tone of the book is largely changed. It almost feels like it’s a genre change from caper-based crime fiction to something that definitely doesn’t merit as whimsical a term as “caper.”
I would have liked to have had a better sense of this being a deaf team of burglars. Maybe I was missing subtle cues in the art or text, but – besides the use of sign language and, perhaps, one scene where a character is oblivious to something happening around them (which could have just been run-of-the-mill obliviousness) – it was easy to forget these kids were deaf. [I will admit, part of this might be my inability to relate. I think it would be a particular kind of terrifying to commit crime without being able to hear. My head would be swiveling about like a hoot-owl’s. Maybe these kids were just better acclimated to high-risk activity in a sensory-deprived situation.]
It’s a compelling story, but does feel a bit disjointed by way of this tone shift. Some readers might find this appealing, others troubling. It’s also good to have a work that both features deaf lead characters, and paints them as complexly as any other characters. If it sounds like it would be up your alley, it’s definitely worth checking out.
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