Hurt Go Happy

by Ginny Rorby

Published by Starscape

267 pages, 2006



Sometimes the Wild Doesn't Call

Reviewed by Lincoln Cho


Hurt Go Happy is the sort of learning and feel-good story I tend to avoid. Novels for young adults that deliver emotional growth -- especially when coupled with a physical handicap -- I generally find too saccharine and condescending for my tastes. And there might be kids out there that like that sort of thing, but I can't imagine them. Show me that kid, and I'll show you someone I'd like to hookup with a Playstation.

Clearly then, I began reading Ginny Rorby's second novel with some trepidation, asking myself just what I was doing. I didn't ask for long. It's Fort Bragg, California in 1991. Joey is 13-years-old, and "nearly as deaf as a post," as we learn exactly two paragraphs into the story.

Wanting the girl to appear as normal to the world as possible, Joey's mother has forbidden her from learning to sign. When she meets a chimpanzee whose only way of communicating is through sign language, Joey's world seems to widen along with her heart. And this by page 24.

The chimpanzee, called Sukari, is being raised by an old man as though she were a human child. The man is a doctor called Charlie Mansell. Sukari is intelligent and can make herself perfectly understood. When the child and the chimp bond, Charlie determines to help Joey communicate more effectively with the world, despite the mother who seems determined to hold her back.

Time passes. Charlie's mentoring of both the girl and the young chimp continues apace. Then calamity happens, ending this idyllic period of learning and sharing. The life Sukari has been raised to is threatened and the young deaf girl seems to be the only one who can save her.

Author Rorby reports that the inspiration for Hurt Go Happy came when she read a newspaper interview with prominent animal behaviorist Jane Goodall. Goodall, who has spent her life studying chimpanzees, had told the reporter about Lucy, an extraordinary chimpanzee who had been raised in the home of a psychoanalyst and his wife. Lucy's story ended badly. After eight years, her adopted "family" turned her out and had her released in the wild where she ended up dead within eight months. Rorby gives her version -- that with Joey and Sukari -- a better ending. Perhaps the ending that should have been -- and certainly might have been -- for Lucy if things had gone a different way.

Rorby writes clearly and well. In other hands, Hurt Go Happy could very well have been one of those overly sweet stories you want to throw across the room mid-way through. But Rorby manages to tell this unavoidably heartwrenching tale without ever creating a toothache. Her prose is simple -- though not too simple -- always lucid and, as demonstrated, the story snaps along at breakneck speed.

Ginny Rorby is also the author of Dolphin Sky, nominated for the Keystone to Reading Award. She lives in Northern California. | December 2006


Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.