First Read: Helen Keller in Love, by Rosie Sultan

Note: I won an advance copy of this book through the website Good Reads. It’s an “advance uncorrected proof” according to the publisher’s sticker on the front. I’m not paid to write a review, I’m writing it for the heck of it–although that is part of the understanding with Good Reads (that if you win a book, you’ll review it). I don’t know the author personally, so all thoughts are my own. 

Most of us think we know all about Helen Keller: the blind/deaf girl who, at the age of seven, learned that everything has a name from the tireless work of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, who finger spelled words into her hand. She graduated from Radcliffe College, gave speeches throughout the country, travelled the world, and wrote The Story of My Life, as well as other works. She was a close friend of Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell, and met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland until she died in the 1960s.

But history glosses over some things: she was a Socialist, against World War I, not traditionally Christian (she was a Swedenborgian), and supported Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade.

She also fell in love.

In the novel Helen Keller In Love, it is this last part that receives attention, although the less palatable facts of Helen’s life, such as her political views, are also mentioned. Sultan seeks to create a full portrait of the woman that everyone thinks they know from her writings, history, and The Miracle Worker. But Helen was a woman of passions and desires just like any other, and, at the age of 37, fell in love with her secretary, Peter Fagin. The two applied for, and received, a marriage application from Boston City Hall, and it seemed that the two would elope. But they never married.

The letters written between the two were lost in a house fire during Helen’s lifetime. But the historical record does tell us that Fagin did exist, as did the marriage license. How their relationship blossomed and, eventually, ended, is Fagin’s plot line.

Her Helen is fully realized, a sharply intelligent, fiery and passionate woman who, at thirty seven, has never had a man touch in her admiration, has never been in love, and has never been allowed to pursue any life outside of what her mother and Annie deemed appropriate for her. When Annie becomes seriously ill, Fagin is brought in as an aide to Helen. Freed from Annie’s constant scrutiny and companionship for the first tim win her life, she falls in love with Peter…and he seems to be in love with her. Is he really? Or is he attracted to her fame and the notoriety that being close to her brings him?

The novel also creates a compelling portrait of Helen’s relationship with “Teacher”, as well as with her mother, Kate, and younger sister, Mildred. Everyone in her life wants what’s “best for Helen”–but Helen rarely gets to decide what is best for her.

Sultan’s novel is compelling and a richly rewarding read, as she brings to life the Helen Keller that few people are aware of–one who lived a full life outside the perfect public appearances.

 

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