A new novel for young readers, Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte, brings to life an often-overlooked era of Martha’s Vineyard history, when deaf and hearing Islanders shared a common sign language.

Ms. LeZotte’s 11-year-old heroine, Mary Lambert, and her father are deaf from birth, inheritors of the gene that wove through up-Island families for generations before receding into the realms of research and anecdote after the mid-20th century. Her mother and brother were born with hearing; all four becoming fluent in the local signs.

In 1805, when the book begins, Mary has no idea that deaf people anywhere are treated as anything but equal members of the human race. Hearing and non-hearing Islanders alike communicate through the local signs, and her best friend is a hearing girl who chatters with her fingers as breathlessly as any tween.

But when, through a shocking act of brutality disguised as scholarship, Mary is taken to Boston, she suddenly discovers herself unable to communicate, regarded as an imbecile and reduced to wretched servitude in a household kitchen.

“What if I can never again speak to someone in my own language?” Mary wonders, as she realizes nobody can understand her signs. “I fear I might go mad.”

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that she escapes her bondage, nor—given that in 1805, transportation between Boston and the Vineyard was by sail the entire way—that there’s a thrilling sea chase involved, in which the villain does not prevail.

But Show Me a Sign is about more than Mary’s adventures on and off the Island. Ms. LeZotte has imagined an entire Chilmark community—not just Mary’s parents, late brother George and other deaf and hearing Vineyarders of British extraction, but friends and neighbors of Wampanoag and African heritage as well.

It’s an appealing, almost Utopian recreation of a place and time before tourism, motor vehicles and mechanization, when Islanders supported themselves and each other with what they caught and grew and Boston was a voyage of days away.

“(It) is not a world that many deaf children ever get to live in: a place where everyone speaks sign language and deaf people are not perceived as inferior in any way,” Ms. LeZotte wrote to the Gazette, in an interview conducted by email.

A deaf author and librarian now living in Florida, Ms. LeZotte first learned of the Vineyard’s place in deaf and sign language history on a visit to the Island in the 1990s.

“I became immediately fascinated,” she wrote. “It’s an important chapter in deaf history, and aided the creation of a national sign language.”

At the time of her visit, Ms. LeZotte was writing poetry. But when she became a librarian a few years later and began working with children who have a range of disabilities, she resolved to write a book for them.

“That’s when I started to realize that post-Revolutionary Martha’s Vineyard might be the perfect setting. It’s a story that hasn’t been told and my main character could live in a community where she was self-possessed and curious,” Ms. LeZotte told the Gazette.

Returning to the Island, she began her research at the Bunch of Grapes and the Chilmark Library, conversing with librarians by pad and pen. Back in Florida, she put in requests for interlibrary loans.

“Your libraries were sending rare materials to my library for me to examine,” Ms. LeZotte wrote.

She also mined deaf history books to learn more about Islanders who went to the first school for the deaf in Hartford, and talked (on paper) to as many people as she could, amassing a box full of handwritten notes.

She began Mary’s story in the third person and past tense, but that soon changed, said Ms. LeZotte, who signs as part of her drafting process.

“As I became more engrossed, I found the ‘I’ in the story that gave it an immediacy and I found sign language conversations were more engaging in the present, perhaps because it’s such a fluid language.”

Ms. LeZotte did a lot of walking on her Vineyard visits, to get the feeling of the land, the roads and scenery.

“There’s quite a special feeling there, that’s quite different from... spending time at the natural springs where I live in Florida,” she said. “I tried to conjure that, to put myself back there while writing.”

She also pored over old Island maps, tracing their lines and imagining who lived there, Ms. LeZotte said. Real-life Chilmark landmarks like the Allen Farm also help give the tale a sense of place, but she did take a liberty or two.

“For example, I could find no reference to a salt marsh, so I created one,” she confessed. “I hope today’s residents don’t mind.”

In addition to its Martha’s Vineyard themes, this historical novel about sign language and the people who used it is a vindication for Ms. LeZotte, who became bilingual in sign after having been prevented from learning it as a child.

“In my early years, American Sign Language (ASL) was discouraged. It was believed children wouldn’t acquire English literacy and especially oral speech if they signed,” she recalled.

“I was forced to sit on my hands in school so I wouldn’t sign, and my parents never learned ASL. All I wanted to do was blend in, but I couldn’t. I can relate more to Mary’s self-doubt and fears than her confidence. Though we’re both survivors.”

And like Mary, Ms. LeZotte said, she always had hearing friends who easily adapted to her deafness, devising games they all could play.

Geared for readers aged 8 to 12, Show Me a Sign is well worth the time for older folks who would like to explore a fresh take on Island history. The novel includes several end notes with additional information about Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag and sign language. Published by Scholastic, it is available at booksellers and libraries.