CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 8. . . .October 22, 2010.
Out of Darkness: The Jeff Healey Story.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2010.
132 pp., pbk., $19.99.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
His whole life people told Jeff he was "doing it wrong." He didn't care, though. Eventually, Jeff moved the guitar from the bed to his lap, laying the instrument flat on his knees, using his thumb as a fifth finger, playing up and down the frets like a keyboard to make great music. Plain and simple. Sure, it was unorthodox. But it worked.
Have you ever been told: "You're doing it wrong"?
Or "It just won't work"?
Did that make you want to quit?
It is tempting to describe Jeff Healey with superlatives, for he was a truly amazing musician and inspiring figure. In Out of Darkness, Healey emerges as a heroic figure who lived his short live to the fullest. When he was still an infant, Jeff lost his eyes due to a rare form of cancer. His adoptive parents, Bud and Yvonne Healey, were devastated, but they strove to help their son live as normal a life as possible. In many ways, they succeeded, for Jeff's twin sisters, Linda and Laura, four years his junior, recall that, as a child, he seemed to have no limitations, and they played and fought together like all sighted siblings.
From the time he was first introduced to the Hawaiian guitar at the age of three, Jeff demonstrated a musical aptitude that would go on to make him a famous musician. Jeff
developed a unique style of playing the guitar, but it worked for him. He was initially self-taught, demonstrating his remarkable ability to learn songs by ear. Although he attended a boarding school for the blind for grades one to seven, Jeff completed his schooling in the public school system in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. In high school, he gravitated toward all things musical and found a niche for himself, even forming his first serious band. The Jeff Healey Band was formed in 1985 and achieved wide critical and marketing success in the late 1980s and 1990s as a blues-rock and jazz band. Healey died from cancer at the age of 41 in March 2008.
Cindy Watson, a labour lawyer and writer for children, draws upon personal interviews with Healey's family members, friends and business associates, and even music liner notes to tell Jeff Healey's story. As demonstrated in the excerpt, she tends to use an informal style in her writing, but this should resonate with the intended audience. She also strives to encourage young readers and their teachers to develop empathy for people living with visual and other disabilities by posing questions or suggesting activities. Sometimes these are embedded in the text, but often these activities appear in sidebars under headings, such as "Things to think about." Other uses for sidebars include explanations of topics noted in the text including echolocation, audible intersections, Louis Braille, "six advantages of being blind" and "eight things you should know about being blind." Ironically, Watson's efforts to educate the reader about visual disability may actually contribute to Healey being known foremost as a blind musician, rather than simply as a great musician, as was his dream. Numerous photographs and memorabilia, chiefly from the Healey family, help to illustrate the story in an appropriate manner.
Out of Darkness is most successful when describing Healey's childhood and adolescence.
His professional music career is less thoroughly described, but Watson does succeed in delving beyond the glamour of a touring band by exposing some of the challenges that being on the road presents to musicians and their families. Healey's first marriage is glossed over almost entirely, there are few anecdotes about Healey's experience as a father of two children, and his venture into proprietorship of a bar is not explained. Nevertheless, this introduction to the life and work of a legendary Canadian cannot but inspire the reader to reach outside the box to follow one's dreams. As a biography of a blind person, it inspires understanding, and this is a remarkable accomplishment in itself, especially since many potential readers will not have much first-hand experience with people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired.
Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian and subject liaison for History, English and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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