The story of Helen Keller’s forgotten forerunner comes nimbly to life in Elkins’ debut novel.
Born in 1829, Laura Bridgman was just 2 years old when she contracted scarlet fever. She survived but lost all senses except touch. 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.