‘Winning’ by Ellen-Marie Silverman

Cherry Hughes, Rachel Everard | 14.03.2017

Book reviews by Cherry Hughes, BSA education officer, and Rachel Everard, specialist speech and language therapist at City Lit, London. Winning is the second book in the Jason Loring trilogy.

Cover of 'Winning' by Ellen-Marie SilvermanReview by Cherry Hughes

This complex novel is set in the United States where the main character is a teenager, Jason, who stammers. The narrative digs deep into the mindset of an adolescent who stammers and unfolds the unexplored aspects of stammering through his experiences in school and young adulthood.

Sadly, this thoughtful and sensitive young man had lost his mother and lived with his father’s new wife and son who both had little time for him, and he felt sad and abandoned frequently. His unhappy home life led him initially to find comfort in school with his four good friends but "his stuttering still dragged him down one way or another". This comment summed up Jason’s continuing struggle; at home his stepbrother teased him but in school his friends supported him and he began to realise that they like him had their own issues and he could help with those. Stammering was just part of the group’s normality.

His friends supported him and he began to realise that they like him had their own issues and he could help with those

Slowly Jason started to explore in his own mind how his stuttering was affecting him and experimented with the breathing techniques suggested by his gym coach and started to appreciate what his therapist meant when she told him that his stutter was only something he did. Stuttering did not define him, it was not something he was, even though at times that was how he felt. It was simply something he did now and again. Jason slowly learnt to use strategies that helped him to stop worrying about his stutter and “meet it head on so that it worried him less and less.” After college he got a good job as a chef and kept in touch with his school friends intermittently and was considered by all of them to have done well, so on the whole life was good for him. However he mourned the death of Rabbi Winters in a terrorist attack on the synagogue which is graphically described.

Consequently, by the time Jason got the invitation to the reunion of his class after ten years he was amazed to find when making a phone call that "he felt a stutter welling up inside him", but he just "let it rip, no big deal!" as he spoke on the answerphone. The book ends with his arrival at the reunion with a friend and the sight in the distance of the girl whom he had always liked!

The book has many adult themes and language appropriate to that context. I would recommend it particularly for older teenagers and young adults, as the narrative is intricate and interspersed with a profound analysis of the complex effects of stammering on a sensitive and reflective central character.

March 2017

Review by Rachel Everard

Adapting an Employers Stammering Network poster:

This is Jason Loring

Jason Loring has red hair
Jason plays chess
Jason is interested in cooking and gardening
Jason gets angry easily
Jason is a grade A student
Jason knows how to make a mean-looking sandwich
Jason is a gymnast
Jason has a stammer

It’s OK to stammer.

Jason gains from being himself. The reader does too. That’s why’s it’s worth reading ‘Winning’.

Following on from the first book in the Jason Loring trilogy Jason’s secret, the second book Winning focuses on his teenage years, as he changes schools and struggles with issues of identity, friendship, sexuality, spirituality and stammering. Ellen-Marie Silverman provides us with detailed insight into the workings of Jason’s mind as we follow his journey into adulthood. Things have not been easy for him in his life so far, with his mother dying when he was young, his father absent part of the time through alcoholism, and an unsympathetic step-mother and step-brother. Added to which, Jason has a stammer which he has learned to manage through the help of a speech and language therapist and which continues to affect him at times. One of the key messages Jason took away from therapy is that stammering is just part of his life, not all of it, something which will be useful for readers of this book, who also stammer, to hear.

One of the key messages Jason took away from therapy is that stammering is just part of his life, not all of it.

Thank goodness Jason is part of a friendship group called the Fresh Air Fives made up of Jason, Ben, Martin, David and Clarissa. One of Silverman’s strengths as a writer is characterisation. We get to know Jason’s friends almost as well as we get to know him, and the impact of their long-lasting friendship has direct consequences on the way Jason chooses to lead his life. He is strongly influenced by David and Ben’s Jewish culture and one of the turning-points in the novel is when he attends Shabbaton and meets David’s father, Rabbi Winters, whose words of wisdom significantly affect Jason’s outlook. Other strong adult characters, who play an important part in Jason’s life, are his Uncle David, the wonderful Mrs Mac and his gymnast coach. Squiggles, Jason’s cat, also offers much-needed comfort in what can seem at times a very unfriendly world.

Silverman skilfully interweaves into the narrative elements of mindfulness which support Jason with his constant changing emotions and his tendency to get angry easily. He often remembers words from his gymnast coach Sam at crucial parts of the story and practises mindfulness informally, for example when taking a shower or using mindful breathing to come to the present moment when getting caught up in a whirlpool of emotions.

There is a lot to offer the reader in Winning: a detailed depiction of the challenges of being a teenager, finding his place in the world when the odds at times seem stacked against him and how mindfulness can help with those challenges. The writing is by Silverman’s own admission dense, and the overall style and the frequent in-depth explorations of Jason’s inner world can be frustrating for the reader. In my opinion the book would have benefitted from more ruthless editing, reducing the length of the book significantly to make it more easily accessible.

I also question the need for the last few chapters of the book which catapults the reader into Jason’s world as an adult in his late 20s. These chapters feel like an add-on and the content is distinctly adult, making the book, in my opinion, inappropriate for young teenagers who stammer, who could have benefitted from reading about Jason’s experiences.

The final book in the Jason Loring trilogy, SheGate, will shortly be available, giving us an opportunity to follow Jason into his 50s.

October 2016.
SheGate has since been published.