An Inner Life

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times:

King“What Is Visible,” a fictional biography, opens with two disparate glimpses of one life. A year before her death, elderly Laura Bridgman meets a busy-handed child named Helen Keller. Next we witness a much earlier historic encounter when Laura, at 12, meets Charles Dickens. The elder Laura is grumpy; the adolescent loops between self-aggrandizement and epic self-doubt. We’re asked to forgive all, because of circumstances more dire than any invented by Dickens or borne by Keller. As a baby, Laura suffered an illness that took her sight, hearing, and senses of smell and taste.

Historical fiction may be the literary equivalent of cilantro; consumers tend to love or hate it irrationally, and rare is the artist who can rally a conversion. I’m of the former persuasion, keen for the surprise bits of fact that shake out of a well-researched story. The first-time novelist Kimberly Elkins has done her job here, giving the reader to know how the doilies on furniture arms earned the bizarre name “antimacassars”; that Braille was a French invention initially condemned by some American educators of the blind; that relations between congressional adversaries have been worse than they are now. (In 1856, on the Senate floor, Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with his cane.) The novel dishes up dirt on a pantheon of 19th-century heroes of civil reform, including Samuel Gridley Howe, Julia Ward Howe, Sumner and Dorothea Dix. And it revives the memory of a forgotten public figure: 50 years before Helen Keller there really was a Laura Bridgman.

More here.