Hurt Go Happy, by Ginny Rorby, 256 pp, RL 5

** January 23, 2013: A report from a National Institute of Health council unanimously recommended that almost ALL of the 451 chimpanzees currently housed at their facilities for the purposes of research and testing be retired, as reported by James Gorman in the New York Times yesterday. Sadly, the N.I.H does not have the funds to retire some 400 of the chimps OR enact the changes to the environment of the chimps kept for testing purposes as recommended by the report. In light of this, it seemed like a good time to re-post my review of Ginny Rorby's phenomenal book, first published in 2006. **

I have owned Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby for almost four years now and have pulled it off the shelf to read many time but, knowing it would be (for me) a very tough read, I never started it. Then I read Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, the slightly fictionalized story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who was raised like a human child until he became too big. He was then placed in the B&I Public Marketplace in Tacoma, WA, also known as the Circus Mall. For almost thirty years Ivan lived in a small, dank enclosure without the society of other gorillas, people passing by day after day, making faces and pounding on the glass of his cage. In 1994 PAWS, an organization that works toward the goal of "a world where all people recognize the intrinsic value of animals and consistently make choices that demonstrate compassion and respect" intervened on Ivan's behalf and found him a home at the Atlanta Zoo where he lives with other gorillas. I was so moved by Applegate's book and Ivan's story that I knew I had to read Hurt Go Happy next, even though I knew it was also based on a true story and would be even more heartbreaking than Ivan's story.

At its heart, Hurt Go Happy tells two stories of the abuse of powerless beings. The book begins in 1991 in Fort Bragg, California, with fourteen year old Joey, who lost 70% of her hearing when she was six. She is left with the ability to hear extremely loud sounds, to remember other sounds, like her mother's voice, and to speak, although her voice is now nasal and high pitched. Her mother cannot afford hearing aids for her and refuses to allow her to learn ASL (American Sign Language) because she fears that it will segregate Joey from the rest of the world and that people will feel sorry for her when they see, through signing, that she is deaf. She insists that Joey learn to read lips and appear "normal." As the story follows Joey through her school day, which is mostly isolated, lonely, and a struggle to learn lessons she can only partially comprehend, with occasional teasing and promises of friendship from Roxy, a girl who knows ASL because her mother is deaf, her mother's decision seems increasingly cruel. At home, Joey is also isolated. Her step-father, Ray, has a long, bushy mustache that makes his lips impossible to read. Her baby brother Luke is adored, but also impossible to communicate with. Joey's mother, Ruth, is her only link to the hearing world and she depends on her for everything. When Joey meets Charlie, her world begins to slowly change. Charlie is the son of deaf parents and communicates in ASL. He is also the owner of Sukari, an infant chimpanzee that he rescued in Cameroon after her mother was killed for meat. Sukari has learned how to sign many words and she and Joey form an instant bond. Charlie writes out most of his communications to Joey and, over the course of a few visits learns enough about her and her family life to become a passionate advocate for her. 

Ruth resents Charlie and is repulsed by Sukari from the start, despite the efforts of Charlie and Joey to convince her of the benefits of their friendship. Ruth is convinced that Charlie is pulling Joey away from her. In an intense confrontation, Charlie points out some hard truths to Ruth, who eventually breaks down and reveals her true reasons for keeping Joey isolated and without the ability to communicate. In Ruth, Rorby has created a complex, flawed mother figure, which is extremely rare in children's literature. Her mistake in life, marrying a abusive man, has scarred her and her daughter emotionally and physically and this affects every decision she has made since then. In a scene near the end of the book Joey, now sixteen, has been allowed to live her life as she chooses, and returned to her mother for help. Frustrated with her mother's willingness to give up easily, Joey looks at the scar on her mother's eyebrow and wonders, "Was there a moment like this when her mother was a girl, a moment when she chose to give in rather than to fight? It would be easier to give up, and the next time it would be easier still. How many times had her mother conceded before it became her habit?" A profound insight for anyone, a teenager especially, it is a defining moment for Joey. Even when Ruth relents and lets Joey lead her life as a deaf person, she still makes decisions about her life and withholds information that creates pain in the end.

The most moving and at times heartbreaking scenes in the book come when Sukari is interacting with Joey. Rorby does a fantastic job presenting the various forms of communication in the book, from broken lip reading to signing to written communication. The sign language that Sukari, Charlie and Joey communicate is truncated but powerful. Sukari, who is based on Lucy Temerlin, a chimpanzee who was raised as a human until she was twelve and then sent to a preserve in Gambia where integration into chimpanzee society was difficult, is affectionate, enthusiastic and playful. She has a cat that she named "Hidey" because he hid from her at first. She calls Charlie "Turtle," because he is slow and stooped like her pet tortoise. She bonds with a gosling that Ray rescues and the bird imprints on her, following her around. Her favorite games are chase and tickle and she gets along very well with Joey's little brother, Luke. Upon their first meeting, the two are chasing and Luke runs into a telephone pole, hurting his head. Convinced it is Sukari who has hurt him, Ruth runs to him, Joey right behind. They find Sukari hugging and comforting the little boy and signing something to him. Years later, remembering this and now fluent in ASL, Joey realizes that Sukari was signing, "HURT GO. HAPPY." She was physically and verbally comforting Luke.  

In Charlie, Rorby creates a fierce and determined character who, while his presence in the book is brief,  acts in ways that are long lasting. When Charlie dies of a heart attack in the middle of the book, Joey and Sukari are devastated. Charlie has included Joey in his will, leaving a trust fund that would allow her to go to the California School for the Deaf, then on to college, with all expenses, from clothing to books to travel, covered. Ruth keeps this information from Joey at first, but Charlie's niece Lynn tells her as she is taking Sukari to live with her in Fresno. When Charlie's lawyer arrives a few days later to go over the will with Ruth and Joey, Ruth keeps him from revealing one last provision - the fact that Charlie left Sukari to Joey - in what seems like another cruel misstep on her part. Joey spends the next year and a half at her new school, visiting Sukari a handful of times until her mother calls her home. Ruth and Lynn are there to tell Joey that Lynn, who has just had a baby, can no longer care for Sukari. Because she has lived like a human and can communicate, she is not able to integrate into a zoo community of chimpanzees. All the rescue centers that could take her are full with retired circus chimps, former actor chimps and lab rescues. Sukari has been sent to notorious facility where she will be used to test the effects of pesticides. Set on Holloman Air Force Base, it is clearly what is currently known as the Alamogordo Primate Facility, at which chimpanzees and monkeys are bred for testing purposes. The scenes that take place at this lab are truly horrifying and written in stark detail that lays out the bleak living conditions of these animals. The two adults who accompany Joey to the lab, a lawyer and an interpreter, both flee after a few minutes, unable to stand the distress and suffering that the animals are experiencing, while Joey continues on to rescue Sukari. Rorby is clearly opposed to animal testing and, in her afterword and acknowledgements she provides information for groups fighting to protect our closest genetic relatives.

All the characters in this book, from Joey to Ruth to Sukari and Charlie, are vividly drawn. Rorby has a remarkable gift for condensing several intense stories into one without making it seem overwrought, sentimental or overly dramatic. At times it may seem like Joey's story is being told in service of Sukari's, but Hurt Go Happy is equally human and chimpanzee. The points that Rorby makes about the similarities between the two and the ways in which humans can be indifferent and cruel to each other and animals are bitter pills to swallow, but one that you eagerly take thanks to her ability to tell a fantastic story and the spoonful of sugar that comes in the form of Sukari, which means sugar in Swahili.

One final thing. I was talking with a librarian today and she told me about a book that consumed her. Endangered, by Eliot Sherfer. You can read the New York Times' excellent review here. This sounds like the perfect, but equally heartbreaking, next book for readers who loved Hurt Go Happy. Hopefully I'll get to review it soon, but, as I said above, these kind of animal stories are hard for me - even when I know there will be a happy ending.


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