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Review by Lzz Johnk, Oregon State University, Email: johnkel@oregonstate.edu

Keywords: essays; autism, neurodivergence

Keywords: history, Deafness

Raymond Luczak’s Compassion, Michigan narrates the lives of feminized people in the once-bustling mining town of Ironwood on the border of Michigan and Wisconsin. The stories move back in time from Ironwood’s rustbelt present to its founding in 1885, when euro-descended settlers sought to capitalize on the area’s abundance of iron. Through Luczak’s lucid narratives, readers glimpse moments in the life of Ironwood and its residents, primarily from the perspectives of women and people with marginalized genders—many of whom experience various forms of disability, chronic illness, and trauma. In addition to historical research that enlivens this Upper Peninsula setting with real people, landmarks, and places, Luczak’s own experiences of growing up deaf and gay in Ironwood inflect several of the stories in this collection. Through the narrations of queer and feminized people whose experiences overlap with his own (a Deaf girl being raised in a large hearing family, a closeted gay man who quietly longs for the companionship of another man), Luczak weaves together the intensity of loneliness with the elation of self-actualization and interpersonal connection that mark living “othered” in a place that is, itself, isolated in many ways from the wider world. 

This collection of short stories digs deeply into the ways that the personal is political, exploring issues such as sexual and gendered violence; sanism, ableism, and audism; queer- and transmisia; and immigration, xenomisia, and nationalism. Almost every story discusses or references disability in some way, and several protagonists narrate their experiences of neurodivergence, Madness, Deafness and disability. In “The Love Whisperer,” a beautician living with AIDS reminds each of her clients of their self-worth when she cuts their hair as her own way of “fighting for love.” In other stories, Madness and disability appear more peripherally. In “The Sacrament of Silence,” a mother struggles to help her son as he finds himself transformed by a violent, traumatic experience. A motif of these vignettes is the journey to heal from or cope with tragic circumstances and trauma, as well as the self-transformation that can sometimes emerge from such experiences. For instance, several stories deal with women who are liberated from heteropatriarchal expectations of the nuclear family structure by the deaths of their husbands. Despite the diversity of ways he narrates experiences of “otherness” through gender, sexuality, class, and disability—Luczak largely avoids discussions of race and Indigeneity. Although characters of colour do make brief appearances, Ironwood’s real-life ongoing histories of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racism are only briefly referenced in Compassion.

Although this is a relatively accessible collection, I encourage readers to take their time with this book: it is not a light read. While there are moments of levity, Luczak’s writing deals simultaneously with painful aspects of rural or isolated life for marginalized people. Almost every story needs one or more content notes for potentially activating material, especially those dealing with queer-/transmisia, sanism/ableism, violence, grief, and death. There are also passing references to racism and colonization, including racial slurs, in some stories. If considering this piece for a class, instructors may want to provide content notes for each piece prior to assigning. Students and writers interested in multi-genre forms may find that this book serves as a model for engaging disability, marginalized genders, and other aspects of “othered” embodiments through a blend of historical research and creative writing.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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