For nonfiction week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.
Keller’s story is culturally familiar to us, perhaps from the William Gibson play The Miracle Worker, but I’d never read her own words. She was born in Alabama in 1880; her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. An illness (presumed to be scarlet fever) left her blind and deaf at the age of 19 months, and she describes herself in those early years as mischievous and hot-tempered, always frustrated at her inability to express herself. The arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when Helen was six years old transformed her “silent, aimless, dayless life.”
I was fascinated by the glimpses into child development and education. Especially after she learned Braille, Keller loved books, but she believed she learned just as much from nature: “everything that could hum or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education.” She loved to sit in the family orchard and would hold insects or fossils and track plant and tadpole growth. Her first trip to the ocean (Chapter 10) was a revelation, and rowing and sailing became two of her chief hobbies, along with cycling and going to the theatre and museums.
At age 10 Keller relearned to speak – a more efficient way to communicate than her usual finger-spelling. She spent winters in Boston and eventually attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for starting college at Radcliffe. Her achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that smell and touch – senses we tend to overlook – were her primary ones. While she used a typewriter to produce schoolwork, a teacher spelling into her hand was still her main way to intake knowledge. Specialist textbooks for mathematics and multiple languages were generally not available in Braille. Digesting a lesson and completing homework thus took her much longer than it did her classmates, but still she felt “impelled … to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear.”
It was surprising to find, at the center of the book, a detailed account of a case of unwitting plagiarism (Chapter 14). Eleven-year-old Keller wrote a story called “The Frost King” for a beloved teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. He was so pleased that he printed it in one of their publications, but it soon came to his attention that the plot was very similar to “The Frost Fairies” in Birdie and His Friends by Margaret T. Canby. The tale must have been read to Keller long ago but become so deeply buried in the compost of a mind’s memories that she couldn’t recall its source. Some accused Keller and Sullivan of conspiring, and this mistrust more than the incident itself cast a shadow over her life for years to come. I was impressed by Keller discussing in depth something that it would surely have been more comfortable to bury. (I’ve sometimes had the passing thought that if I wrote a memoir I would structure it around my regrets or most embarrassing moments. Would that be penance or masochism?)
This short memoir was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Keller was only 23 and partway through her college degree at the time of publication. An initial chronological structure later turns more thematic and the topics are perhaps a little scattershot. I would attribute this, at least in part, to the method of composition: it would be difficult to make large-scale edits on a manuscript because everything she typed had to be spelled back to her for approval. Minor line edits would be easy enough, but not big structural changes. (I wonder if it’s similar with work that’s been dictated, like May Sarton’s later journals.)
Keller went on to write 12 more books. It would be interesting to follow up with another one to learn about her travels and philanthropic work. For insight into a different aspect of her life – bearing in mind that it’s fiction – I recommend Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. In a couple of places Keller mentions Laura Bridgman, her less famous predecessor in the deaf–blind community; Kimberly Elkins’ 2014 What Is Visible is a stunning novel about Bridgman.
For such a concise book – running to just 75 pages in my Dover Thrift Editions paperback – this packs in so much. Indeed, I’ve found more to talk about in this review than I might have expected. The elements that most intrigued me were her early learning about abstractions like love and thought, and her enthusiastic rundown of her favorite books: “In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends.”
It’s possible some readers will find her writing style old-fashioned. It would be hard to forget you’re reading a work from nearly 120 years ago, given the sentimentality and religious metaphors. But the book moves briskly between anecdotes, with no filler. I remained absorbed in Keller’s story throughout, and so admired her determination to obtain a quality education. I know we’re not supposed to refer to disabled authors’ work as “inspirational,” so instead I’ll call it both humbling and invigorating – a reminder of my privilege and of the force of the human will. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)
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Since I wrote about my first batch of wintry reads in early February, it’s turned much more spring-like here in southern England, with blue skies and the daffodils blooming. Still, temperatures continue chilly and some nights I’ve had trouble falling asleep because of the wind tearing down the street and flapping the bin lids. With meteorological spring due to start tomorrow, I’m bidding farewell to winter with a few more snow-covered reads: a children’s classic, a modern classic from the 1990s, and an implausible but enjoyably rollicking thriller.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)
Aiken’s books were not part of my childhood, but I was vaguely aware of this first book in a long series when I plucked it from a neighbor’s giveaway pile. The snowy scene on the cover and described in the first two paragraphs drew me in and the story, a Victorian-set fantasy with notes of Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, soon did, too. In this alternative version of the 1830s, Britain already had an extensive railway network and wolves regularly used the Channel Tunnel (which did not actually open until 1994) to escape the Continent’s brutal winters for somewhat milder climes.
One winter, the orphaned Sylvia travels by train from London to the north of England to live with her cousin Bonnie and her parents, Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. But dodgy things are afoot at Willoughby Chase: Miss Slighcarp, a distant cousin, has been hired as the girls’ governess but, just as soon as Bonnie’s parents leave on a long trip, she sets about taking over the house. Bonnie and Sylvia, exiled to a workhouse, rely on a secret network of friends and servants to keep them safe and get them home via an intrepid journey.
Miss Slighcarp is just one of the novel’s Dickensian villains – balanced out by some equally Dickensian urchins and helpful adults, all of them with hearts of gold. There’s something perversely cozy about the plight of an orphan in children’s books: the characters call to the lonely child in all of us, and we rejoice to see how ingenuity and luck come together to defeat wickedness. There are charming passages here in which familiar smells and favorite foods offer comfort. I especially loved their friend Simon’s cave and his little rituals. This would make a perfect stepping stone from Roald Dahl to one of the actual Victorian classics.
My only quibble with the book overall would be that the wolves seem unnecessary: they only truly appear once, for a climactic scene during the train ride, and the rest of the time are just a background menace. From fairy tales onwards, wolves have gotten a bad rap, and we don’t need to perpetuate myths about how dangerous they are to humans.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1994)
My first 5-star read of the year! It certainly took a while, but I’m now on a roll with a bunch of 4.5- and 5-star ratings bunching together. I remember the buzz surrounding this novel, mostly because of the Ethan Hawke film version that came out when I was a teenager. Even though I didn’t see it, I was aware of it, as I was of other literary fiction that got turned into Oscar-worthy films at about that time, like The Shipping News and House of Sand and Fog.
The novel is set in 1954 on San Piedro, an island of 5,000 off the coast of Washington state. A decade on from the war, the community’s chickens come home to roost when a Japanese American man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is charged with murdering a fellow fisherman, Carl Heine. The men had been engaged in a dispute over some land – seven acres of strawberry fields that were seized from the Miyamoto family when, like the rest of the country’s Japanese population, they were rounded up in internment camps. Meanwhile, Ishmael Chambers, who runs the local newspaper and lost an arm in the war, stumbles on a piece of evidence that might turn the case around. Still in love with Hatsue, now Kabuo’s wife but once his teenage obsession, he is torn between winning her back and wanting to do what’s right.
Guterson alternates between trial scenes and flashbacks to war service or stolen afternoons Ishmael and Hatsue spent kissing in the shelter of massive cedar trees. The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as the jurors until very close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. All the characters are well drawn, even minor ones like elderly defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson. Even though I only read 10 or 15 pages at a sitting over the course of a month, every time I picked up the book I was instantly immersed in the atmosphere, whether it was a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater. This has the epic feel of a doorstopper, though it’s only 400 pages. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton (2015)
Ten-year-old Ruby and her mother Yasmin have arrived in Alaska to visit Ruby’s dad, Matt, who makes nature documentaries. When they arrive, police inform them that the town where he was living has been destroyed by fire and he is presumed dead. But Yasmin won’t believe it and they set out on a 500-mile journey north to find her husband, first hitching a ride with a trucker and then going it alone in a stolen vehicle. All the time, with the weather increasingly brutal, they’re aware of someone following them – someone with malicious intent.
The narration is in short segments, alternating between Ruby’s first person and a third-person account from Yasmin’s point-of-view. There are many interesting elements here: Ruby is deaf so communicates via a combination of sign language, voice recognition software, blogs and social media, and describes things synesthetically; Yasmin is a physicist drawing metaphors to scientific concepts, but can’t explain her own mystical certainty that Matt is still alive; and there is an environmentalist message behind the fracking cover-up plot.
But starting with the first page, there are so many improbabilities in play, from a 10-year-old having a Twitter account to Yasmin managing to drive a big rig on ice roads in a foreign country. I knew from reviewing Three Hours last year that Lupton writes addictive thrillers. This one was perfectly readable, but not as good. It’s our book club read for early March, and I expect I won’t be the only one to find it hardly believable.
Plus a skim:
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)
This was my first time trying the late Lopez. It was supposed to be a buddy read with my husband because we ended up with two free copies, but he raced ahead while I limped along just a few pages at a time before admitting defeat and skimming to the end (it was the 20 pages on musk oxen that really did me in). For me, the reading experience was most akin to The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen in that both are about a literal journey in an extreme environment, yet what stands out are the philosophical musings. Where Matthiessen was animated by Buddhist ideas about selfhood and loss, Lopez takes the secular long view of human life and responsibility in light of potential extinction. The epilogue, in particular, is endlessly quotable. It’s depressing to encounter books like this now, though: 30+ years ago, literary nature writers were issuing clarion calls about climate disaster, and we didn’t listen.
Some favorite passages:
“Whenever I met a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. … If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analogous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?”
“The cold view to take of our future is that we are therefore headed for extinction in a universe of impersonal chemical, physical, and biological laws. A more productive, certainly more engaging view, is that we have the intelligence to grasp what is happening, the composure not to be intimidated by its complexity, and the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes.”
“One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility must find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.”
Did you read anything particularly wintry this year, or are you and your book stack moving on to spring already?
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from The Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so there’s nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction on this year’s varied shortlist of eight titles:
- Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young [essays]
- The Crossway by Guy Stagg [travel memoir]
- Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly [historical fiction]
- Milkman by Anna Burns [literary fiction]
- Ordinary People by Diana Evans [literary fiction]
- The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus [poetry]
- There There by Tommy Orange [literary fiction]
- West by Carys Davies [historical fiction]
I’m helping to kick off the Prize’s social media tour by championing the debut poetry collection The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (winner of the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society), issued by the London publisher Penned in the Margins last year. Antrobus is a British-Jamaican poet with an MA in Spoken Word Education who has held multiple residencies in London schools and works as a freelance teacher and poet. His poems dwell on the uneasiness of bearing a hybrid identity – he’s biracial and deaf but functional in the hearing world – and reflect on the loss of his father and the intricacies of Deaf history.
I was previously unaware of the difference between “deaf” and “Deaf,” but it’s explained in the book’s endnotes: Deaf refers to those who are born deaf and learn sign before any spoken language, so they tend to consider deafness part of their cultural identity; deaf means that the deafness was acquired later in life and is a medical consequence rather than a defining trait.
The opening poem, “Echo,” recalls how Antrobus’s childhood diagnosis came as a surprise because hearing problems didn’t run in the family.
I sat in saintly silence
during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached
The Good News I only heard
as Babylon’s babbling echoes.
Nowadays he uses hearing aids and lip reading, but still frets about how much he might be missing, as expressed in the prose poem “I Move through London like a Hotep” (his mishearing when a friend said, “I’m used to London life with no sales tax”). But if he had the choice, would Antrobus reverse his deafness? As he asks himself in one stanza of “Echo,” “Is paradise / a world where / I hear everything?”
Learning how to live between two worlds is a major theme of the collection, applying not just to the Deaf and hearing communities but also to the balancing act of a Black British identity. I first encountered Antrobus through the recent Black British poetry anthology Filigree (I assess it as part of a review essay in an upcoming issue of Wasafiri literary magazine), which reprints his poem “My Mother Remembers.” A major thread in that volume is art as a means of coming to terms with racism and constructing an individual as well as a group identity. The ghazal “Jamaican British” is the clearest articulation of that fight for selfhood, reinforced by later poems on being called a foreigner and harassment by security staff at Miami airport.
The title comes from the name of the pub where Antrobus’s father drank while his son waited outside. The title poem is an elegant sestina in which “perseverance” is the end word of one line per stanza. The relationship with his father is a connecting thread in the book, culminating in the several tender poems that close the book. Here he remembers caring for his father, who had dementia, in the final two years of his life, and devotes a final pantoum to the childhood joy of reading aloud with him.
A number of poems broaden the perspective beyond the personal to give a picture of early Deaf history. Several mention Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife and mother were both deaf, while in one the ghost of Laura Bridgeman (the subject of Kimberly Elkins’s excellent novel What Is Visible) warns Helen Keller about the unwanted fame that comes with being a poster child for disability. The poet advocates a complete erasure of Ted Hughes’s offensive “Deaf School” (sample lines: “Their faces were alert and simple / Like faces of little animals”; somewhat ironically, Antrobus went on to win the Ted Hughes Award last month!) and bases the multi-part “Samantha” on interviews with a Deaf Jamaican woman who moved to England in the 1980s. The text also includes a few sign language illustrations, including numbers that mark off section divisions.
The Perseverance is an issues book that doesn’t resort to polemic; a bereavement memoir that never turns overly sentimental; and a bold statement of identity that doesn’t ignore complexities. Its mixture of classical forms and free verse, the historical and the personal, makes it ideal for those relatively new to poetry, while those who enjoy the sorts of poets he quotes and tips the hat to (like Kei Miller, Danez Smith and Derek Walcott) will find a resonant postcolonial perspective.
A favorite passage from “Echo” (I’m a sucker for alliteration):
the ravelled knot of tongues,
of blaring birds, consonant crumbs
of dull doorbells, sounds swamped
in my misty hearing aid tubes.
The winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize will be announced on May 20th.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.