Imagine the almost unimaginable. Imagine having lost four of the five senses so long ago they can barely be remembered. Imagine living without the luxuries of sight, sound, scent and taste. The only method of understanding the ways of the world is through fingertips and feeling. Touch is the sole course to comprehension.
In her debut novel, “What Is Visible,” Kimberly Elkins captures this almost inconceivable existence of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind person to learn English through sign language administered directly into the hand of the communicator.
Ms. Elkins’ work of historical fiction is based almost entirely on fact, and any fictitious additions to the documented truth are purposeful and believable when considering the characters’ natures and needs.
Although the book tells the historical tale of Bridgman, her companions, and her brushes with famous acquaintances — including author Charles Dickens, activist Dorothea Dix and Bridgman’s more lastingly famous successor in deaf-blind education Helen Keller — during the very real political and social movements of the second half of the 19th century, Ms. Elkins transcends the facts to capture the essence of each character.
The reader can understand, if not sympathize with, even the least likable of them. Ms. Elkins’ story is not only informative but also beautiful and tragic, without any of the dryness a textbook biography on the subject might offer.
First and foremost, “What Is Visible” details the sorrowful solitude of Laura’s condition. Although as a child she is paraded around and introduced to the great names of the 1800s to show off her linguistic achievements and to satisfy the ego of the doctor who has taught her all she knows, Laura’s close friendships remain few.
She can converse only with those who understand hand signing. Even those fluent in her means of communication find her burdensome at times and fail to give her the attention she craves.
Laura is not just isolated from the people around her; her condition also keeps her from having full knowledge of the world. It is as if she lives behind a curtain, ignorant of information that others learn by simply seeing and hearing their surroundings.
The story is told mainly from Laura’s point of view, but some chapters provide the perspectives of her doctor, Samuel Gridley Howe; his wife, Julia Ward Howe; and Laura’s teacher and friend, Sarah Wight.
As the reader gets to know each of these characters, it becomes clear that, although Laura has limited human interaction and remains ignorant of some aspects of life, she is not devoid of universal human traits. She is driven by her passions, just as her companions are (although they each feel passion for different things, including politics, religion, lovers, and offspring).
Despite Laura’s isolation, she is shaken by grief just as much as those who can understand sorrowful events with all of their senses. Even the seemingly most dissimilar characters — the self-titled “freak” Laura and the beautiful Julia — have much in common when one looks past the surface.
Although their relationship has its tensions, they sometimes find solace in their similarities. “What Is Visible” reiterates the age-old truism that judging someone on the basis of what is visible is not necessarily the key to understanding the person; one must examine character to fully appreciate others.
Ms. Elkins also understands, though, that while one’s surface should not be the basis on which the public judges an individual, it often is. Regardless of this commonplace theme, Ms. Elkins’ ability to give a voice to Laura Bridgman makes for a captivating read. Laura’s achievements were remarkable yet are often overshadowed by those of her successor, Helen Keller.
Ms. Elkins’ novel rightfully gives Laura Bridgman a principal place in the history of deaf-blind education, granting her the recognition she deserves.
Ivy Kuhrman is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.