What Is Visible

By Kimberly Elkins

(Grand Central, $25, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Kimberly Elkins makes her debut as a novelist with “What Is Visible,” but she also is known for her short stories and nonfiction. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and has written for the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, Iowa Review, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Village Voice, among others. A Tennessee native, she now lives in Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

The book is fiction, but the subject is real: years before Helen Keller was born, Laura Bridgman was the first deaf and blind person who learned language and became famous during the mid-19th century. Laura had scarlet fever as a two-year-old child and recovered, but lost her eyesight, hearing and senses of smell and taste. With a quick mind and strong personality virtually imprisoned in her disabled body, she nevertheless learned to communicate through touch alone under the supervision of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston and husband of Julia Ward Howe, the suffragette and writer who composed the words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Dr. Howe was a brilliant teacher but a cruel man, who stifled his wife’s ambitions and Laura’s desire for full womanhood. Charles Dickens wrote about her, and Laura eventually met Helen, whose popularity she resented. Though the book has fictional aspects, such as s lesbian lover for Laura, it mainly follows the astounding true story of her life, proving once again that truth can be stranger – and more compelling – than any fiction.

Why you’ll like it:

Kudos to Elkins for bringing Laura Bridgman, once famous and admired, out of the shadows of history with this powerful, if embellished, tale. She combines historical reality with novelistic skill, broadening the story from Laura’s understandably constricted perspective and thereby making it more palatable to the reader. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Elkins discussed what drew her to Laura’s life story:

“When I saw her picture in the article, even though her eyes were covered with a shade, I could feel her isolation, her pride, her precocity. It was there in the straightness of her spine, the way her hands caressed the raised-letter book, the slightly odd and rigid way she held her head. She was posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for an image she’d never see, and with a face and body she’d never know except through touch. As someone who has suffered from bouts of severe depression all my life, I immediately identified with that sense of profound separateness—that inability to communicate the helplessness and depths of one’s truest emotions to others.”

On why Laura was forgotten:

“Helen Keller set out, in her own words, to become “the best damn poster child the world had ever seen,” while Laura had no desire to mold herself into a perky novelty for the world to cheer on; she was too stubbornly, even mischievously, her own person, becoming increasingly outspoken, especially on matters of religion, contradicting the views of the New England elite who had supported her. Ideas about female beauty and “normality” also figured into Laura’s decline—she became anorexic due to her lack of taste and smell, which made her far less exhibition worthy. As a result, Perkins Institute conducted a decades-long search to find the “second Laura Bridgman,” and Helen Keller was finally chosen from a field of candidates based solely on a photograph. But more than anything, it was the loss of her beloved teacher at age 20 that kept Laura from reaching her full potential and maintaining her celebrity. For most of her life, Helen had Annie Sullivan to interpret the world for her, and she learned to speak, graduated college, and went on to become a vibrant public figure. Helen herself said that if Laura had her own Annie Sullivan, she would have far “outshone” Helen.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “In this fictional treatment of the life of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to learn language, Elkins aims to show “how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.” After a raging bout of scarlet fever at the age of two, Laura loses her eyes, her hearing, and her ability to taste and smell. Taken from her family home by Dr. Samuel Howe and taught to communicate via hand spelling, Laura soon becomes a celebrated figure attracting hundreds to exhibitions at Howe’s Perkins Institution, including Charles Dickens and Dorothea Dix. But Howe has his own agenda, using Laura to push both the causes of phrenology and anti-Calvinism. When Laura embraces the Baptist faith, she loses Howe’s favor but never loses her fire. Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife, and Laura’s beloved teacher, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: Laura Bridgman lost all her senses but that of touch due to a fever at age two. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history. Fortunately, Elkins revives this historical figure with a wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel. Arriving at the Perkins Institution as a child, Laura learns to read, write, and “speak” through signing via the manual alphabet, with letters tapped out on her hand. Though she receives hundreds of visitors at “Exhibition Days,” Laura has few friends or family members who care about her. She is intensely attached to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe from the institution, and suffers virtual abandonment when he marries to begin a family of his own. Howe, acting in accordance with the religious and scientific mores of his time, thwarts the dreams and desires of the women around him, including his wife, Julia Ward; Laura’s teacher, Sarah Wight; and Laura herself. But despite the many physiological and social restrictions placed on her, Laura comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “. . . At 7, she was sent to Boston to live with Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute, who taught her tactile sign language, tapped out in the palm of the hand, which eventually enabled her to read, write and do arithmetic as well as hold conversations. As word of Howe’s achievement spread, Laura herself grew famous. A miracle girl whose renown was rivaled only by Queen Victoria, she was celebrated in the press and even written about by Dickens. Yet she remained an experiment for Howe. After he acquired a family and her development plateaued, she was increasingly left trapped in her own inner world. Flitting back and forth over the course of a half-century, the novel is told from alternating viewpoints, including Laura’s own. She is at once savvy and naïve, and as she strives to understand the world through touch alone, she falls in love with Howe, campaigns to be allowed glass eyes and access to the Bible, and has an intensely physical affair with an orphaned Irish girl. A little too much is made of the latter event, along with bouts of anorexia and self-harming, though the historical background is elegantly sketched. In her late 50s, Laura meets 8-year-old Helen Keller, already known as “the second Laura Bridgman.” (“The second, and I’m still here!” she huffs.) Other perspectives contextualize her celebrity and include those of Howe; his headstrong wife, Julia, a writer, abolitionist and suffragist; and Laura’s favorite teacher, who marries a missionary and meets a tragic end. An affecting portrait which finally provides its idiosyncratic heroine with a worthy voice.”

“Kimberly Elkins’s wonderful novel salvages [Laura Bridgman's] story from the sunken wreckage of history and tells it anew in riveting, poignant detail… “What is Visible” illuminates the historical blindness of men – and women’s struggles to be seen and heard. The novel is infused with longing and rich with detail about the social reforms of the Victorian era, the quest for rights and freedom for women and slaves, for the disabled and the poor…. Elkins gives full throat to this strong voice: Laura is funny, angry, brave. She sees without seeing, hears without hearing, speaks without speech. Her world is rich indeed, one of yearning, secrets, defiance and lyrical flights of fancy. In what the author has described as the only “major swerve from Laura’s documented life,” Elkins invents for her a sensual love affair, based on Laura’s oft-punished habit of creeping into the beds of the female students at Perkins, craving touch and connection. . . .This important story has been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years, and Elkins makes this great American woman visible again, in all her remarkable, fully human complexity,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this enlightening book.

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