This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.4
The eponymous Whisper whispers because her voice is “nasal, airy and distorted (38). Author Chris Stuyk-Bonn does not use the term until much later in the novel, but it is obvious that Whisper was born with a cleft palate (palatoschisis), for which her society has rejected her. She lives in the forest with Jeremia, who has a truncated arm (meromelia); the child Eva, who has webbed fingers and toes (syndactyly); the baby Ranita, also with a cleft palate; and the adult Nathaniel, who is not a “reject” but has chosen to leave society for his own reasons. Together, they form a “tribe,” a small family that look out for and love one another, living off the trade of Jeremia’s woodcarvings for supplies. Whisper is lucky: her mother—powerless to avoid the ostracization of her daughter—visits once a year. On Whisper’s 15th birthday, though, she fails to show up, sending a violin as a final gift. Whisper has an innate talent—doubtless inherited—and learns to play the music of the forest, and the joy of her family.
When, few months later, Whisper’s abusive father shows up and takes her back to his home as a servant, her life spirals down into rejection and abuse. She struggles to remain strong while being assaulted both physically and psychologically, then functionally sold into slavery in the city. At this point, it is hard for the reader to go on, so devastatingly presented is Whisper’s life. All that she has, all that supports her materially and emotionally, is her music. When fate finally intervenes, and she is given a chance at success, she is almost too traumatized to believe in the possibility of altruism. The strength of the novel lies in Whisper’s ability to stay true to herself, even damaged as she has become. The dénouement, though, seems trite and simplistic, compared to the profoundly troubling and intricately developed images of poverty and destitution that Struyk-Bonn has given us. While the sense of loyalty and love created between Whisper and her chosen family is heartfelt and inspiring, the joy and satisfaction felt in the end does not sufficiently overcome the distress experienced in the reading.