Thursday, June 19, 2014

Can't Keep It To Myself: What Is Visible

Helen Keller is still a household name, even almost 50 years after her passing.  (Point of interest, Keller's last residence was actually just down the road in Easton, CT.)  What most people today don't realize, however, is that 50 years prior to Helen Keller, there was another child who lost her sight and hearing to scarlet fever, as well as her senses of taste and smell, leaving her with only her sense of touch.  Her name was Laura Bridgman and she was among the most famous women of her time, as the first deafblind child to gain a significant education in the English language after being sent to the Perkins School for the Blind when she was eight years old, nearly six years after losing four of her five senses.  She was also the first case of the use of tactile sign language, which would later be used by Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.

In Kimberly Elkins beautiful, moving debut, What Is Visible, readers are introduced to this remarkable woman and what her internal life might have been like.  In a time when women had few rights, Laura, who was loved by her mother and disowned by her father (who insisted that she learn to talk and communicate like a "normal" child or not enter his home), was raised at a school which until that time only worked with blind girls.  Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins School at that time, experimented with ways for Laura to communicate and learn language, publishing his findings in several European medical journals.  An intrigued Charles Dickens made it a point to stop at the Perkins school to meet young Laura during his travels in America in 1842, and wrote extensively about his visit in his American Notes.  As a result, Howe and his young charge both garnered quite a bit of international attention.

What did this mean for Laura?   In addition to her unique set of challenges, she now had fame to contend with, which included a series of appearances in public.  Elkins uses historical records and extrapolates to bring readers a gorgeous novel that is captivating and compelling--Laura is the primary narrator, by turns mischievous, temperamental and witty, but her tale is also told by Dr. Howe, whom Laura loved; his wife, abolitionist, suffragist and poet Julia Ward Howe; Laura's beloved first teacher, Lydia, who married a missionary and ultimately died of syphilis; Annie Sullivan; and even the young Helen Keller herself. 

This novel was so incredibly intoxicating, I finished it inside of 24 hours (yes, I slept).  I cannot keep it to myself, and I absolutely cannot recommend it highly enough.  Outstanding.

No comments: