When I realized that The Right Kind of Fool by Sarah Loudin Thomas had a deaf protagonist, I didn’t know if I was ready to tackle that story not. How do you write from the perspective of a boy who can neither hear nor speak? How do you convey his experiences without being clunky and awkward?
But Sarah does an amazing job with this. Even though Loyal Raines’s communication had to be described in terms of hand signs and lip-reading efforts, the writing flowed and wasn’t clunky at all. In fact, I looked forward to reading the scenes written through his eyes just as much as those of the other characters.
Sarah was my guest a year ago when we discussed her novel The Finder of Forgotten Things.
Thirteen-year-old Loyal Raines is supposed to stay close to home on a hot summer day in 1934. When he slips away for a quick swim in the river and finds a dead body, he wishes he’d obeyed his mother. The ripples caused by his discovery will impact the town of Beverly, West Virginia, in ways no one could have imagined.
The first person those ripples disturb is Loyal’s absentee father. When Creed Raines realized his infant son was deaf, he headed for the hills, returning only to help meet his family’s basic needs. But when Loyal, now a young teen, stumbles upon a murder it’s his father he runs to tell–shaping the words with his hands. As Creed is pulled into the investigation he discovers that what sets his son apart isn’t his inability to hear but rather his courage. Longing to reclaim the life he abandoned, Creed will have to do more than help solve a murder if he wants to win his family’s hearts again.
Thirteen-year-old Loyal has been misunderstood, judged, bullied, stared at, rejected. He doesn’t fit in. He’s not like anyone else in his community. He’s deaf.
It helps that he has attended a boarding school for the deaf. Besides being intelligent, he knows sign language and reads lips. But he still feels like an outcast back at home.
This story occurs during summer vacation when Loyal stumbles across a dead body, then spies other people nearby who might have something to do with it.
But this is far more than a typical whodunit. Themes of marriage, family, trust, and friendship enter in. Reconciliation. Coming of age. Courage. Community and belonging. Bullying and being misunderstood.
All this is deftly brought together in the setting of southern Appalachia, its beauty sparkling in each chapter.
The tale is told from several points of view: Loyal, his mother Delphy, his father Creed, and the sheriff Virgil White. Each has a distinct voice and personality.
Creed, burdened by guilt, has been living up on the mountain for about ten years, ever since his son became deaf at age four. Burdened by his role in causing his son’s hardship, he retreated from the family. Thus, he never learned sign language and has no idea how to communicate with Loyal. However, Creed still takes care of Delphy’s and Loyal’s physical needs and shows up in town periodically.
Since Creed used to be a sheriff, Virgil deputizes him to help find the killer. Loyal knows more than anyone. But who would value his observations?
Delphy knows sign language. She’s loving but overprotective. Loyal is her only child and his deafness could invite danger. When Creed tries to step back into family life, many arguments ensue, especially over how much freedom Loyal should have.
If I had to choose my favorite character combination, that would be tough . . .
1) I loved the interactions between Creed and Delphy—even the difficult ones—because they rang true. So much needed to happen to rebuild trust. I was worried too much damage would prevent reconciliation and reparations.
2) I loved the “dialogue” between Creed and Loyal. Throughout the story, Creed is pleasantly surprised at how well Loyal communicates, how intelligent he is. Creed gradually picks up some sign language himself, but more importantly, he starts to see Loyal for the whole person he is. He also begins to see the role he wants and needs to play in Loyal’s life.
3) I enjoyed the interactions between Creed and the sheriff Virgil, also his friend. Those ranged from banter to anger to hammering out the best way to proceed on the case.
Loyal has much at stake as he tries to win everyone’s trust so the right suspect is found and punished. As a young adolescent, he desperately wants his father to be proud of him and treat him with respect. He also seeks friendship with Michael and his sister Rebecca, close to his age, which is tough when Michael bullies them. Loyal’s name fits him. He’s a brave and a true friend, but with his limitations, not everybody sees him in his true light.
The murder suspects range from kids to adults, from locals to outsiders who have come in to survey the land. The outcome is not predictable. Many missing pieces kept me guessing. But again, this novel’s power and significance goes way beyond the mystery to the interplay of family dynamics, friendships, and community, resulting in a very gratifying story.
“Any fool can play a trick. Courage is holding your head high when they do.”
Join me for some Q & A with Sarah Loudin Thomas.
Questions about The Right Kind of Fool
What was your inspiration for writing The Right Kind of Fool, particularly with a deaf boy as a major character? What’s your personal connection to the setting or situation?
Sarah: I was researching a completely different story about an unsolved murder from the 1930s. When I came to a note that the body was discovered by a “deaf mute boy,” I was suddenly off and running. What would it have been like to be deaf in 1930s West Virigina? How would he have told about the murder? How did people treat him?
I found another note about the trial that said he did, indeed testify, “using hand signs.” Well. I couldn’t resist that. Plus, my second grade teacher, Lee Lashley, taught us the basics of ASL and I was smitten by this notion of talking with my hands. (Which I do anyway!)
How did you develop your main characters (Creed, Delphy, Loyal, and Virgil) and their unique challenges?
Sarah:I never base a character on a real person (unless it’s an historical figure) but they’re all a blend of people I’ve known and met over the years. Delphy has a dash of my mother and grandmother. Creed is based on the “old guys” my dad spent time with when I was growing up. (They probably weren’t that old!). Virgil has a little of the county sheriff who gave me a silver dollar at Christmas when I was a kid.
And Loyal? He’s got a smidge of my baby brother, a dose of a couple of rowdy boys from church, and a whole lot of HIMSELF. When I came up with the idea of a main character who was a 13-year-old deaf boy I forgot that I’d have to then write from his POV. It’s probably the hardest I’ve worked to get a character right. And I think I did!
Do your characters hijack the story or do you have full rein? What did your writing process look like?
Sarah: I give my characters a basic structure to operate in and then see where they want to go. I write a pretty broad outline with key events, point my characters in the direction they need to go and then cut loose! Which means my writing process is spurts of knowing exactly what’s going to happen next and having almost no idea.
It’s often at the no idea points that my characters come up with something wonderful! For example, I knew who killed the man Loyal stumbled upon when I started but turns out I was wrong!
What would Creed, Delphy, and/or Loyal have to say about you? Which characters would you be least and most likely to get along with?
Sarah: “Leave us alone?” Ha!
I wish I could have a cup of tea and some oatmeal cookies with Delphy. I’d love to ginseng hunting with Creed. And it would be fun to get Loyal to teach me some sign language. Oh wait—he already did! I’d best not spend much time with Virgil, though. He’s married and I have a bit of a crush on him. I think I’d get along with everyone because even with the stinkers, I know what made them that way.
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story? Did you already know a lot about sign language? What about criminal investigations in West Virginia in 1934?
Sarah: I think the most interesting tidbit was that forensic ballistics was just beginning to be used as a tool in crimes involving guns. Once I read that, I knew I had to work it in with Virgil finding the bullet at the crime scene.
As for ASL, I did have a really basic foundation and thought I’d just go ahead and learn some more. Hello. It’s HARD. I can recognize a sign now and again when watching an interpreter, but those versed in it sign FAST. And my brain can’t keep up.
One of the things that was important to me was to reveal some of the misconceptions about people who are deaf or profoundly hard of hearing. Like—it’s HARD to read lips. Even when people are good at it, it takes tons of concentration and focus. Plus, people do things like turn away or put their hands in front of their mouths. Also, talking louder doesn’t help. Just like talking slower doesn’t help and can even make it harder for a lip reader.
So often, hearing people have thought that deaf people should learn to speak aloud. Or, these days, to use technology to help them hear. There are many people in the deaf community who don’t see their inability to hear as a disability. And they can communicate just fine.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like Southern fiction or stories about family secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
If you like dual timeline fiction, you might enjoy my novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for writing updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
Sarah Loudin Thomas Bio
Sarah Loudin Thomas grew up on a 100-acre farm in French Creek, WV, the seventh generation to live there. Her Christian fiction is set in West Virginia and celebrates the people, the land, and the heritage of Appalachia.
Sarah is the director of Jan Karon’s Mitford Museum in Hudson, NC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Coastal Carolina University and is the author of the acclaimed novels The Right Kind of Fool–winner of the 2021 Selah Book of the Year–and Miracle in a Dry Season–winner of the 2015 Inspy Award. Sarah has also been a finalist for the Christy Award, ACFW Carol Award, and the Christian Book of the Year Award. She and her husband live in western North Carolina. Visit her website here.
Join me next time for a visit with author Michelle Shocklee.
Meanwhile, have you read The Right Kind of Fool or any others by Sarah Loudin Thomas? Do you enjoy Southern fiction? Answer in the comments below.
Sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive the prequel for All That Is Hidden: