A review of Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Helen Keller in Love
by Rosie Sultan 
Viking Adult
Hardcover: 256 pages, April 26, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0670023493

Many of us have seen the drama, The Miracle Worker, which showed how the life of Helen Keller, a deaf-blind seven year old, was transformed when an innovative teacher taught her to communicate by spelling words into her hand.

At 19 months, Helen Keller (1880-1968) suffered an illness that left her blind and deaf. Her despairing parents contacted Alexander Graham Bell, who directed them to Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind. The school recommended one of their graduates, Anne Sullivan (1866-1936) as the little girl’s teacher/companion. Thanks to Sullivan’s tutelage, Helen Keller became an achiever, not only at schools for the blind and deaf, but at Radcliffe College, where she graduated with a B.A. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903) made her famous. During her long career as an author, lecturer, public speaker, and as a fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind, she was regarded as a saint.

Those of us who first learned, as children, of Keller’s life and work, may be unaware of her early radicalism. Influenced by John Macy, a Harvard instructor who helped her write The Story of my Life, she became a socialist, a member of the International Workers of the World. Annie Sullivan and Macy got married in 1904, and until they separated 1914, lived with Helen in her home in Queen’s, New York. Helen was also a feminist and an opponent of U.S. participation in World War I.

In her third autobiographical work, Midstream, Keller wrote briefly about her relationship with Peter Fagan, with whom she took out a marriage licence in 1916. The lesser known aspects of her life have been revealed in her biographies, which include Helen Keller, a Life (1998), by Dorothy Hellmann, and Helen and Teacher (1980, and 1997) by Joseph P. Lash.

Novelist Rosie Sultan read Hellmann’s and Lash’s biographies and used archival sources, including newspapers, in researching her novel, Helen Keller in Love. Sultan’s decision to write in the first person, from Helen’s point of view, gives the novel a tone of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy. She begins in August 1916 when Keller and Sullivan are on a lecture tour in Wisconsin and Sullivan falls seriously ill with a respiratory condition. Contacting her estranged husband, Sullivan asks him to find Helen, then 37, a secretary. Macy sends them a 29 year old journalist, Peter Fagan, and the two fall in love.

“I learned denial early,” Helen says in Sultan’s novel. “At age 17 I first felt sexual desire; it was when I was reading a romance novel. Then one morning I asked Annie about sex and she said, ‘Forget it. That’s not for you. Channel it into your work.’ But Peter brought alive cravings in me, like an empty mouth.”

Her public image, however, fit the Victorian maidenly ideal – virginal and selfless. According to Sultan, backed up by Keller’s biographers, Helen’s family disapproved of her desires. Because she was so severely handicapped, they saw all men as potential exploiters and wouldn’t let her be alone with one.

Sultan presents Peter Fagan as a goodhearted man who does not understand, at first, the level of assistance Helen requires merely to take a walk or order a meal in a restaurant. A quick study, he is soon shocked at the state of Helen’s finances, the decrepitude of her house, and the control that both Anne Sullivan and her mother exert upon her. Though physically attracted to Helen, Peter worries about the future if should they marry.

“I can tell people’s moods by their hands,” Keller says in the novel. “The liar’s hand shifts and trembles…I trusted Peter’s hands on me but I also trusted how they shook, ever so slightly, that day.”

Sultan’s vivid sentences that show Helen’s supersensitive ability to smell, taste and touch. “My whole body is a vibroscope,” she says. “I remember conversations with my fingertips.” Given the limitations of Helen’s life, it seems unfair that she was denied the pleasures of the body and the experience of pregnancy.

Sultan portrays Sullivan as agitated, ill, and broken-hearted over the failure of her marriage. She has not received a salary from the Keller family since Helen was ten; the two of them have been supporting themselves on the lecture circuit, with gifts from philanthropists. As of 1916, however, they are barely making ends meet. Sultan shows why Sullivan was so protective by quoting one of her letters: “With Helen, I have found someone who will love me completely and can never leave.”

For me, the only flaw in the novel is that it left me unclear as to how Helen delivered her lectures. Elsewhere I’ve read that she learned how to express herself in ordinary speech. In Sultan’s book, however, she appears on stage with either Sullivan or Fagan, spelling her thoughts into their hands so that they can express them aloud.

Sultan convincingly dispels the idea that Keller was a tranquil, content person who “triumphed” over her disabilities. Instead, she shows Helen as frustrated by her “utter dependency…I have to cajole, plead, persuade those around me to do the simplest things, like read me the date because I can’t do it myself.”

We come away from the novel seeing Keller, not as a saint, a wonder of the world, or an inspiration, but as a sad, brave human being. Like two other recent novels, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, Helen Keller in Love brings to life the emotions of a woman whose romance with a complicated man did not work out as she had hoped.

For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.