Welcome the triumphant return of Women Writers Wednesdays! April’s Poet-A-Day series was so much fun again this year, and I look forward to its likely return next year, but I’m taking a well deserved break from posting daily and resuming a more typical course on the blog as we propel ourselves through the spring. Summer is coming, too, which means you’ll start to see more of my own original content here, because the school year will be finished and I’ll have more time for my multitude of writing projects (more on that later).
Today’s WWW review comes to us from Misty Urban, who has crafted a thoughtful response to What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins.
I met Kimberly Elkins in the MA program at Florida State University, where it was clear from our very first workshops that she was a monster talent, even before the story which forms the kernel of her novel won a fiction prize from The Atlantic Monthly. She’s so good that I sneakily tracked down and then read her master’s thesis cover-to-cover. What is Visible is a novel a long time in the making and benefits from this careful incubation and thoughtful research as much as from Elkins’ excellent training, inimitable sensibility, and pitch-perfect voice. It is, in short, a stupendous book.
The novel tells the life story of Laura Bridgman, a nineteenth-century woman and resident of the Perkins Institute who was Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe’s most famous student before Helen Keller. She had already been something of a showpiece for Howe’s philosophies and teaching practices before Charles Dickens described her in his American Notes (1842, free at Project Gutenberg). Bridgman outdid Helen Keller by the power of two; childhood illness deprived her of sight, hearing, and her ability to taste or smell. The only sense remaining to her was that of touch.
Writers depend on the senses to bring their world alive for their readers—taste, scent, sound, and sight. How do you tell the story of a woman of intense intelligence, spirit, understanding, and affections, who can communicate only through her sense of touch?
Elkins does it—brilliantly—by weaving Laura’s first-person narrative with narration from some of the key figures around her: Dr. Howe (nicknamed “Chev”), his wife Julia Ward Howe, and Laura’s teacher-companion, Sarah Wight, who has her own interesting and tragic story within the larger frame of Laura’s life. Aside from the demands of writing about historical personages whose outer lives are well-documented, the time period presents its own challenges: philosophical debates over religion, the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, and Julia’s career and influence (she of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” fame) all offer territory that a novelist can’t ignore.
Elkins makes a valiant effort with the Civil War material, summarizing where she can and focusing instead, poignantly, on the inner conflicts: Howe’s involvement with the rebellious John Brown, Julia’s attempt to console herself with public works as her marriage disintegrates, Laura’s change of heart regarding the plight of the slaves after she reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin in raised print. The intensity and vividness of these internal conflicts are the book’s great strength and beauty. Elkins portrays with equal care and precision Howe’s self-congratulatory airs as the beneficent patriarch and his “romantic friendship” with Charles Sumner, Julia’s bridal hopes and maternal woes as she establishes herself as a poet, Laura’s struggle to evolve spiritually and independently even though Doctor doesn’t wish to encourage what he sees as her fervor for religion.
But in a book full of vibrant characterizations, sly wit, and line-by-line beautiful prose, the centerpiece, of course, is Laura, and the language becomes truly transcendent when Elkins focuses on how Laura uses her single remaining sense to examine and interact with her world. She creates in Laura a memorable character who comes completely to life as a curious, sarcastic, jealous, perceptive, longing, occasionally vindictive, wonderfully clever and wounded person who can never get enough of physical touch, especially from other people. Just one example appears in this moving passage, in which Laura has just introduced the new servant girl, Kate, to her horse Wightie, and is feeling Kate’s hair:
I slide one finger into the mass. When she doesn’t recoil, very slowly my whole hand enters, fingers first, an inch at a time, until it is suspended in that soft forest.
She doesn’t move away from me, though she doesn’t move toward me either. I can tell from the thrust of her shoulder that she is stroking Wightie’s mane. My hand in Kate’s mane, hers in Wightie’s; nothing has prepared me for the perfection of this moment. I am careful not to pull, though I want to, and am ready to bury my whole face—the tip of my nose already in, my lower lip so close a tendril vibrates in my sharp exhale—when my arm is grabbed and wrenched away. My fingers tangle in Kate’s hair, and she twists against me.
Jeannette has made me hurt the girl. She grips my forearm and shakes it free of all that beauty. We are separated, and when I put my hands out in front of me, there is nothing but briny wind against my palms. (171)
Far beyond the pleasure of stepping into the inner lives of these historical characters, the reader learns to experience the world as Laura does. She is so perfectly realized in the way she adores the Doctor and competes with Julia for his attention, or how she feels superior to the “blinds” at the school who only lack the one sense, but at night crawls into bed with them, in punishment for which she is not only confined to her own room but, in one of the most painful scenes of the novel, forced to wear gloves. Laura loves but never belongs to or with her birth family; she struggles with religious feeling and makes a final break with the Unitarian Doctor when she insists of becoming Baptist; she has a different relationship to sensations and pain, given they are how she translates the world; she even enjoys and then loses a lover. For all the unique imagination that makes this book so (to borrow Bob Shacochis’s word) mesmerizing, the most memorable, the most compelling aspect is the fierce spirit of stubbornness, independence, passion, and individuality with which Elkins imbues this historical woman who would otherwise be completely defined by her limitations. As the strong-willed Laura declares, “I refuse to be anything but myself, whatever that is” (240). Good fiction trains its readers in empathy and understanding; in liberating the inner world of this remarkable woman, Elkins cultivates compassion and insight with a force that is heart-breakingly relevant, and breath-takingly real.
Misty Urban is the author of Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance and several works of short fiction appearing in national journals and Sisters: An Anthology from Paris Press. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval English literature, an MFA in fiction, and she went to Florida State University with Kimberly Elkins. Find her blog on women and literature, Femmeliterate, at madwriters.net.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.