Helen Frost has a way of carving out interesting characters and shaping deep, rich stories, using the cleverest of a poet's tools. Her novels, “Salt” and “Keesha's House,” have always been two of my favorite novels in verse. Her latest book, “All He Knew,” is another showcase of her master skills as a poet, historian and storyteller.
“All He Knew” takes us back to the 1940s, when most of the young men in our country were headed off to fight in yet another “great war.” This historical fiction novel weaves together the story of young Henry, who has been deaf from an early age, and Victor, the conscientious objector to the war who, instead of fighting like his brother, has taken a job at a bleak institution for children who've been labeled “feebleminded.”
As the paths of Henry and Victor cross, the reader also spends time with Henry's sister, Molly, who has been sure all along that just because Henry cannot hear does not mean he cannot learn.
Though Henry's life at Riverview Institution is repetitive, cold and sad, there is joy to be found in the squirrels outside his window, the drawings he makes and the friends he finds on the ward where he lives.
Not every employee at the school is kind to the children who live there, but Victor does his best to bring some light into their lives. He teaches them card tricks, offers up smiles and listens patiently when Henry dares to speak.
In the poem “Henry Smells Cinnamon,” Henry watches his mother get angry as Victor tells her about some of the unfair treatment the boys received at Riverview.
“I'll keep learning how to read and write, he thinks,and someday I'll tell people what that place is like. It doesn't have to be the way it is.”
Frost has turned a spotlight on a period of history in which children with disabilities were sometimes seen as incapable of being able to live with the rest of society.
Though Henry is a fictional character, he was inspired by Frost's husband's uncle who, like Henry, was sent to a similar school because he was unable to hear.
“All He Knew” is a gripping read for historical fiction lovers, ages 10 and older. It's perfect for fans of Thanhha Lai's “Inside Out and Back Again” or “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse.
Readers who are curious about what life was like for conscientious objectors during World War II or what life was like for children with disabilities decades ago will find themselves quickly engrossed in the breathtaking poems that are woven together into this beautiful story.
Inclusion is something we can make the mistake of taking for granted in present day.
“All He Knew” reminds us of what a privilege it is to live among a diverse group of people, and what we can learn from one another just by being kind.
Skila Brown, a Bloomington resident, is the author of verse novels “Caminar” and “To Stay Alive,” as well as two picture books, all with Candlewick Press. This review is made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities.
About the author
Helen Frost, a poet, anthologist, playwright and writer for children and teens, has lived in Fort Wayne for 29 years. She has received an Indiana Author Award for her work, and three Individual Artist Fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission.
"All He Knew" by Helen Frost (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 272 pages, $17.99