Friday, October 23, 2015

Book review: What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

Laura Bridgman was the first deaf and blind person to learn to communicate, not Helen Keller as you may have believed. In fact, she met Helen Keller late in life. The method of spelling letters int he sign language alphabet into her hand that Annie Sullivan used with Helen Keller, was first used with Laura Bridgman, whom Annie Sullivan briefly roomed with at the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

This novel based on Laura's life is mostly narrated by Laura, but also by Dr. Howe, the director of the institute, and by his wife, Julia Ward Howe (if you are, like me, wondering why you know her name, she later wrote, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during the Civil War.) The book mostly takes place in the 1840s-1860s, but continues to the end of Laura's life. Laura's relationships were fraught with emotion and tantrums and inappropriate behavior. She also did not have a sense of taste or smell, so to be without four of her five senses left her quite cut off and desperate for connection. The author has invented a lover for Laura, which several members of my book club did not like (although I was the only one who had read the book to the end and so knew the denouement and I think that might have changed things for them. When I explained the how and why of her invention, some of them came around or at least were less skeptical.) A historical novelist must not only adhere to known facts, but instead, when emotional logic calls for a character or an incident that makes sense of the main character's reactions and choices, and it doesn't conflict with the historical record, I am fine with the addition (provided that, as the author did here, there is a thorough and detailed note explaining the line between history and fiction.)

Laura is not an easy woman to like. It is easy to feel pity for her situation, but she is prickly, demanding, and difficult. I admire Dr. Howe's commitment to her, even if it occasionally came with strings attached and with a toll for all parties. She comes across as a very real person, with her myriad flaws and struggles. It doesn't make for a very easy read, but it is worthwhile and was an interesting piece of history I didn't know anything about before.

I checked this book out of the library.

1 comment:

Kristen said...

I'm sorry I had to miss book club on this one because I would have enjoyed discussing it for sure. I did read to the end and thought that the invented lover added nothing to the story so we could have argued that one some. ;-)