Set Me Free
Ann Clare LeZotte
September 21, 2021
In 1805, 11-year-old Mary Lambert was kidnapped by scientist Andrew Noble and used as a live specimen in an experiment to determine the cause of deafness in the people of Martha’s Vineyard. Now, 14 years old and safely back at home, Mary is weary of life on the Vineyard. Although routine life is comforting, Mary yearns for adventure. So, when she receives a letter from Nora O’Neal—a woman who helped rescue her from Noble’s experiment—asking her to tutor an 8-year-old girl believed to be deaf-mute, Mary jumps at the chance. However, teaching the young girl, whom Mary affectionately calls Ladybird, will not be easy. Upon arrival at the Vale, the manor in which the young girl lives, Mary discovers that the butler has locked her away. The Vale staff say that Ladybird is violent and have very little faith that she can learn to communicate. Mary must prove them wrong, teach Ladybird sign language, and free the young girl from her mental and physical cage.
LeZotte’s Set Me Free shines a light on how fear of what we don’t understand influences our actions. The butler locks away Ladybird because she is different. He’s not able to grasp the idea that even though a person cannot hear or speak, they are still intelligent and able to converse with others. Set in the early 1800s, prejudice against the Wampanoag tribes and freed Africans is common on the Vineyard and beyond. Mary witnesses slaves chained and shackled boarding a boat in the Boston Harbor. She endures the rant of her best friend’s uncle claiming that the Wampanoag tribes are violent, and Europeans must live separate from them. This racism is just another act of fear against those that are different. There is also a strong religious aspect to this story as Mary, her family, and the surrounding community seek God’s guidance and strength in everything they do. During Mary’s stint tutoring Ladybird and dealing with the cruel butler, she prays frequently and looks for light in the darkness. LeZotte does an excellent job illustrating how the deaf communicate, showing the subtle differences between spoken and sign language. When Mary signs with her family and friends, she doesn’t always use full sentences. Sometimes all it takes is the sign for one word and a facial expression to convey what one means in sign language. The author’s note includes the history of hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Nation, the Vale, and other issues that influenced the story.