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American Annals of the Deaf

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  A Literary View of the Lives of Deaf People and Women in the 19th Century
  • Traces the development of Swedish Deaf culture as well as the experiences of women in the 19th century.
  • Supplemental reading for courses such as Deaf studies, Deaf history, and gender and women’s studies.
  • Agneta Pleijel is a lauded novelist and well-known in Sweden as a journalist, literary and social critic, and feminist.

Praise for the Swedish Edition

“This is a book that contains so much that is terribly exciting, from that time and now: Sweden and Europe, speech and silence, opera and painting, gender and class, standards and deviation, virtue, lust, and dishonor. And there is more in this winding, engaging family chronicle...along with occasional epiphanies, presented in simple, precise but sometimes lyrical and striking language.”—Nina Lekander, Expressen

“And it is undeniably of deep significance...that language is central—the language that Albert has to fight to gain and the language of music that Helena, despite the best conditions, fails to develop.”—Ellen Mattson, Svenska Dagbladet

In Sister and Brother: A Family Story, Swedish novelist Agneta Pleijel uses old letters, records, and stories passed down through her family to imagine the lives of her deaf great-grandfather, Albert Berg (1832–1916), and his younger sister, Helena Berg Petre (1834–1880), who was hearing. Envisioning in her mind’s eye the joy her great-great-grandparents, Isaac and Carolina “Lina” Berg, experienced at the birth of their first child, Pleijel writes:

In the spring, Lina first felt the baby stirring deep inside. She noticed a scent of balsam poplar in her nostrils. She rested her hand on her belly. She was amazed; nature took over. She felt dizzy and part of a miracle.
The birth was difficult and lasted a long time. But Lina bore a well-formed little boy; that was in September 1832. The crown of his head was covered with a pale down with a whirl in back, and his ears were little pink labyrinths. He was baptized Albert. His father was so proud of his son, he couldn’t stop talking about him.
A future musician. Another Schubert! A Beethoven! Isaac mused.

Of Helena’s birth, two years later, she writes:

Her eyes were dark blue, and she could see. And her hearing? Her ears reacted to every little sound of rustling and buttoning.
Lina leaned over the cradle. The girl was asleep. Everything around the child seemed bathed in peace. The child dreamed, maybe about birds with their beaks tucked in under their wings, about little mice in the forest with soft paws, and about breaths of wind—anything that she could have imagined while she was in the womb. But now she was in the world.
Isaac made the decision; the baby was baptized Helena Sophia. She, who was only a girl, had what Albert lacked—both hearing and a singing voice.

Both siblings would face struggles with oppression, autonomy, and self-determination. In Sister and Brother, Pleijel’s literary treatment of their lives sheds light on the cultural and social norms that shaped the experiences of deaf people and women in the 19th century.


Agneta Pleijel is one of Sweden’s foremost novelists as well as a playwright, poet, and essayist. For several years she was a critic and cultural director at one of the largest daily newspapers in the Nordic countries. She is the recipient of several literary prizes and her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Author photo by Göran Segeholm. Courtesy of Norstedts Publishing Group.