The book opens on a rainy night in 1968, when an odd couple shows up at the door of retired teacher Martha Zimmer--an African American man who is deaf and a younger white woman who is beautiful but seems unable to speak. Mrs. Zimmer provides dry clothes for the couple, who are obviously in love; as they emerge from the layers of wet clothing, she sees that the young woman is carrying a newborn baby. Within minutes, however, the police and officials from the "Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded" show up. The man escapes, but the woman is put in a straightjacket and hauled away. As she is dragged from the house, she manages to whisper to Martha Zimmer, "Hide her."
Martha takes the charge from this stranger to heart and immediately makes plans to leave her home with the baby. Drawing on a network of former students with whom she stays in touch, Martha sets out to keep the child, whom she names Julia, from being captured by men from the school. At this point, the story is told on three parallel tracks--Martha and Julia's life on the lam; life at the school, told from the perspective of both the young mother Lynnie and a good-hearted employee named Kate; and the cross-country adventures of the deaf man Homan, who is trying to get back to the school but keeps getting sidetracked.
Homan is bright but cannot communicate except in a sign language that no one else knows. He ended up confined at the School after a period he called "The Running," when he was fleeing from people who killed his brother. After his escape from the school, he has another long spell of running, with many frightening experiences; yet he also meets a number of people who treat him kindly. The same is true for Martha and Julia; while their lives are not totally easy, they are helped by and encounter many lovely people. And through one of her former students, Martha is able to start the process that brings sorely-needed reform to the school. The depiction of life at the school is grim--yet even here, Lynnie was able to fall in love with Homan, whom she thinks of as Buddy; make a good friend in Doreen, the child of a famous playwright and actress (perhaps based on the story of Arthur Miller and his son); and develop her skill as an artist with the help of Kate. Yet she yearns for both Buddy and her child and must still deal with the two sadistic guards who repeatedly intimidate her, the filth of the facility, and the fear of knowing what can happen if you don't go along.
Simon does a good job of helping readers understand the thought processes of two people who cannot communicate with others and don't always understand what is going on around them--and she imbues them with great dignity. She also casts light on a disturbing and too-little-known aspect of our recent history, the treatment of the disabled in state-sponsored institutions. Given that context, the book could be extremely dark, Simon manages to make the story one of redemption and the power of the human spirit. While I was reading the ending, I was thinking to myself, "This is a bit hokey,"--and yet I was moved (in fact, I shed a tear or two on the plane where I was reading the book--kind of an embarrassing moment).
Learning to speak again had been a long process made up of many tiny steps, each taking endless afternoons of frustration. Luckily, everyone who mattered to Lynnie had grown used to what Doreen had dubbed "Lynnie-talk" . . . the reactions of others were actually another lesson she'd learned about change. When change happened to an individual, it happened to everyone around her--sometimes in ways she wished for, though sometimes in ways she wished against.
The sky was crying outside, and as she watched the drops come down, she thought: A rainy day can actually be a very important day. And a small hope isn't really small if it makes a lost hope less sad.