Only a brave novelist would imagine a complex romantic narrative for someone as chronicled as Helen Keller. Her tragic and inspiring life was re-created for millions in the movie “The Miracle Worker,” and her memoir, “The Story of My Life,” has been continually reprinted and reissued since its publication in 1903.
In her first novel, Rosie Sultan is adventurous — and brave. She has immersed herself in every available piece of information about Keller and, to an amazing degree, puts herself into her heroine’s silent, dark world. Sultan looks within, telling Helen’s story in the first person. We are taken into the isolation and limitations that Keller lived with her entire life. Her laborious communication method was to have attendants spell out words into the palm of her hand, and then she would reply in the same way. However adept her helpers, this process was painfully slow: “One thing no one tells you about being blind and deaf is this: You say what people need to hear. You leave out the rest.”
Set 35 years after Keller lost her hearing and sight from a childhood illness, this story centers on a small segment of her life: an imagined love affair. When her devoted teacher and primary caregiver, Annie Sullivan, must go to warmer climes to recover from tuberculosis, Peter Fagan, an unemployed journalist, steps in to assuage Helen’s practical and emotional loss. Always kept away from any significant relationships with the opposite sex, she falls passionately in love with Peter. But Helen’s mother, unable to tolerate such independence, tries forcefully to tear the couple apart.
Fagan did exist and did work briefly with Keller. Possibly, there was something like the love affair that Sultan creates here, although their letters were destroyed. In the novel, Peter finds her a passionate and lonely woman seeking sexual fulfillment. He serves as Helen’s eyes and ears as she becomes a crusader for the blind and a controversial opponent of America entering World War I.
Sultan tells us that she has included some of Keller’s own words in this novel. Although she doesn’t identify them, it’s easy to believe Keller might actually have written, “Being deaf and blind was like being trapped on a gray, silent island.” Her relationship with Peter promises to release her from that island.
“Helen Keller in Love” is touching and fun to read. Its only major flaw is that the author tells us the end in the very first pages. I wish she hadn’t. Fiction sometimes fits uncomfortably with the historical record, but Sultan has given the adult Helen Keller a new voice and reminds us of both her brilliance and her humanity.
Weeks is a former editor of Book World.
HELEN KELLER IN LOVE
By Rosie Sultan
Viking. 242 pp. $26.95