I had actually never heard of this title until I stumbled across it on the New York Public Library's "Books for the Teen Age" list for 2007. How I had missed it is a mystery, one that I can only chalk up to a lack of promotional advertising. Which is a horrible shame, because this book is one of the best I've read in years. If you haven't read it, you should. If you've never heard of it, don't worry, because you'll never forget it once you've read it.
I didn't have a lot of preconceived ideas going into the story. From the book jacket, I knew that HURT GO HAPPY was about a girl named Joey who was deaf, and who lived with a mother who forbid her to learn ASL, or American Sign Language. I knew that she met a chimpanzee named Sukari, who had been raised almost like a child by a man named Charlie, who had taught her ASL. What I didn't know was that this is the most emotional story I've ever read. It may have been a mistake to read this book at work (Don't worry, I'm allowed!), because I broke down in tears more times than I can count while reading it.
It's true that Joey is deaf. She wasn't born that way, but suffered from a childhood incident that isn't revealed until close to the end of the book. The reader knows that it must have been something bad, and it probably has something to do with why her mother, Ruth, doesn't want her learning to sign. That abhorrent, inane hatred of sign language is an attribute of Ruth's that had me disliking her from the first, and even though, over time, her stance ultimately changes, I never came to fully enjoy her as a character. That being said, though, she is one of the strongest characters of the story, and even though I fault her for many mistakes she made throughout HURT GO HAPPY, you can always understand, on some level, how she came to make them.
When Joey meets Charlie, an older doctor who lives close to their home in California, she is immediately taken with him. Not only does he know sign language, but he truly knows her -- and for a girl like Joey, cut off from so many people at home and at school by her inability to communicate easily, this is a treasure. When she meets Sukari, the chimp who is more like a child, she's smitten.
Over the course of months, Joey, Charlie, and Sukari bond as if they were their own tightly knit family, and in a way they are. There are obstacles to overcome, as always, that involve Joey's family, Charlie's health, and Sukari's relationship with them all. HURT GO HAPPY spans the course of years, and during that time we see a myriad of changes, from Joey learning to sign and attending a school for the deaf, from Charlie suffering from his bad heart, and from Sukari being taken from the only home she's ever known to ultimately end up in a research lab.
This isn't an easy story to read, but it's so heartfelt and true that you won't want to stop reading it. Although it's hard to say whether or not HURT GO HAPPY has a happy ending, it has one that is so true to life that you'll understand it's the only way it could have ended. The author makes it clear that this is a story based on true events, and that fact alone will have you thinking of the world in new ways. This book isn't just about being deaf, nor is it strictly about using animals for testing. It's about the choices we make, the burdens we carry, and the love that gets us through it all.
There is so much more I could tell you about this book. I could tell you that I ordered a copy of the AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE CONCISE DICTIONARY so that my daughter and I could learn more signs. I could tell you that I ordered books about other chimps who have lived their lives using ASL. I could mention that, although I had previously never thought much about testing on animals, I now can't stop thinking about it. I could also tell you that, genetically, chimpanzees share over 98% of the same DNA as humans. In the end, though, I'll just say that HURT GO HAPPY is, simply stated, amazing. Read it. You'll be glad you did. I promise.
Reviewed by: Jennifer Wardrip, aka "The Genius"