Becky and I have each made a goal to write something on our blogs about every book we read this year. Notice that it's the end of January and I've not written a book note in months, certainly none since I set the goal. I do, though, have a great big stack of books to write about. I'm starting with Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller because it's due at the library, oh, yesterday. I've been reading a lot of books lately that my kids are also reading. I checked this one out for Haley, but it's easy enough that Jake could read it, too. But in my zeal over a book written in the voice of Annie Sullivan, I forgot that neither one of them likes historical fiction, so it'll be returned tomorrow (only two days overdue! Yay me! So much for that other New Year's Resolution, which was to pay no fines to the library all year long!) having been read only by me.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite series of books was a set of biographies written for children. They were hardbacks, with orange covers (no dust jackets in sight) and a silhouette of the subject's face imprinted in gold on the cover. They told the stories of famous people's childhoods, and oh, how I loved those books. (I am determined to one day find and own a set of them, not the reissued-in-the-80's version, but the orange hardback version.) Although I read about John Adams, George Washington, Mark Twain, and Buffalo Bill, my favorites were the ones about girls (a feminist at heart, even as an eight-year-old): Betsey Ross, Rosa Parks, Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Blackwell, Abigail Adams, Pocahontas, Amelia Earhart, Annie Oakley, Clara Barton. I must have checked out the one about the mysterious Jamestown colony ten times. But my ultimate favorite of this series was the book about Helen Keller.
Maybe it was because I was already growing to love language in my own life that made imagining her life before Annie Sullivan---with nearly zero language---so hard to imagine. The images of Helen running wild at the breakfast table, moving from plate to plate and eating what she wanted---a wild boar of a girl---was startling to me, and the image of Helen and Annie at the water pump, when the miraculous break though happened is something that occasionally pops into my head even now, almost thirty years after reading it. I tried to imagine communicating only with hands, or reading braille, and I certainly failed. But I loved their story, Helen and her teacher Annie living their lives together, bound to each other by needs.
At least, I knew Helen needed Annie, but I didn't realize, as a child, that Annie also needed Helen. That is one of the things you learn in Miss Spitfire, just how much Annie Sullivan needed a person to love---someone who could be a sort of home for her. The story takes on an added depth when seen through Annie's eyes---the helplessness of Helen's parents, for example, and the frustration of the entire family at Helen's obvious intelligence, buried in her blindness. Yet, for all the details about Helen's life, this isn't really a book about Helen Keller. It is a book about a woman becoming both a teacher and a sort of surrogate mother---about Annie finding her own little soul to love. She recognized what Helen needed---love, obedience, and language. "Words," she tells Helen's mother, "bridge the gaps between two minds. Words are a miracle." You get to see, in this book, the miracle of Annie's loneliness finally being assuaged.
When I read that quote, I had a sudden glimpse into that childish head of mine, the girl who was happy and peaceful with nothing more than a quiet afternoon with a good book. I think this is why I loved Helen's story: because even then, words were a miracle to me. Even then---especially then---books were my friends. And it's why I enjoyed this book as well. Like bumping into a ghost of my old self. I think that if you like the Helen Keller story, you'll love Miss Spitfire, too. It's well researched (the author based Annie Sullivan's voice, mannerisms, opinions, and ideas on letters written during those early days with the Kellers) and fast paced (I think even my "I don't like history" children would enjoy it if they'd give it a chance). The writing is half way between lyrical and factual. Definitely a book I would recommend to almost anyone. A quick quote to end:
If I'd ever seen a child born, it couldn't compare to what happened at the pump today. Helen opened before my eyes, and whatever it is that makes us human flowed into her as if I'd poured it from my own hands.