“They’re actually calling her ‘the second Laura Bridgman,’” America’s reigning deaf-blind celebrity is irked to note when 8-year-old Helen Keller comes to meet her on the opening page of this unusual historical novel. It’s 1888 at the Perkins Institution in Boston, and Bridgman’s annoyance at being upstaged is prescient: a year later she is dead at 59, and Keller is on her way to becoming, as she herself later put it, “the best damn poster child the world has ever known.” But Kimberly Elkins gives Bridgman her defiant due in reimagining her fascinating, now-forgotten story. As fierce as she is frail, the girl who navigates life by touch (an early fever left her without smell and taste, too) flouts everybody’s expectations, including her own.
Elkins holed up in the library, and emerged ready to scrutinize real-life eminences and explore unexpected power relations: the man who makes Bridgman’s education his cause, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, struggles to tame his wife, the poet Julia Ward Howe, as well as his restless pupil. Elkins’s bolder feat is to feel her way into Bridgman’s “marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound.” That’s how Charles Dickens, who was awed by 12-year-old Laura on a visit in 1842, described her plight. The world Elkins discovers within is anything but muted. In tactile prose, she evokes a soul and a body with hungers (yes, there is sex) that none of Bridgman’s guides begins to imagine.