In the tightknit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poughkeepsie, New York, 23-year-old Arlo Dilly’s life is dictated by his ultraconversative uncle, Brother Birch, and an equally religious American Sign Language interpreter named Molly. Arlo is deafblind, and his sheltered upbringing and sensory limitations mean that his life has been highly controlled by those around him—until a 40-something interpreter named Cyril Brewster changes all of that quite unintentionally.
When Arlo decides to take a writing course at a local community college, Cyril accepts the job as his summer interpreter. Cyril isn’t an expert in the form of ASL that Arlo uses, referred to as Tactile or TSL, but he’s hoping to make some extra money and, concerned as he is about “beelining for homosexual obscurity,” escape Poughkeepsie for good. It isn’t long before Cyril begins to appreciate Arlo for who he is: a determined young man who is smart, funny and full of curiosity.
With Cyril as his champion, Arlo begins to ask questions about things as small as his bowl haircut and daily bologna sandwich, and as big as the truth about his boarding school sweetheart, S. At its heart, The Sign for Home is about a young man doing everything he can to be with the love of his life.
Chapters alternate between Arlo’s and Cyril’s narration. Passages that depict how Arlo experiences touch, smell and ASL are especially well done; his sections unfold in the second-person singular, so his lessons and revelations feel all the more intimate, revealing a layer of emotional intelligence and humor that would be lost if the story were told only from Cyril’s first-person perspective.
Debut novelist Blair Fell has worked as an ASL interpreter for more than 25 years, and also has been an actor, producer and director. The Sign for Home draws on all these experiences to tell a story that is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.