by Gundula | 1/29/2014
" Helen Keller's story has always fascinated me, and I have seen most of the movie versions of William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker more than once. Sarah Miller's Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller basically tells the same story as portrayed in The Miracle Worker (how Annie Sullivan is able to open Helen Keller's sightless and soundless world to language, to communication and personal interaction), but it is a biographical novel told from Annie Sullivan's perspective, in her voice. For a mostly non-fiction, biographical account, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller is really quite remarkable in that the narrative reads like a novel. Sarah Miller's writing is outstanding, amazing, capturing (what I would consider) Annie Sullivan's voice, her ideas, her feelings and emotions (the first-person narrative feels like it is Annie relating her story, not the author writing as "Annie"). However, Sarah Miller has not only managed to capture her narrator's voice, Annie Sullivan's voice. No, she has also managed to deliver an authentic, realistic and heartbreaking portrayal of seven year old Helen Keller, of her frustration, anger and isolation (how her parents' indulgent behaviour made this frustration worse, how her parents' actions and lack thereof turned an intelligent little girl, frustrated at not being able to communicate, at being isolated by her blindness and deafness, into a wild, seemingly crazed monster of a child).
Annie Sullivan is able to reach through to Helen Keller because she is stubbornly strong-willed and determined to fight for her pupil (even against Helen's family, even when Helen physically lashes out at her). In many ways, Annie understands the girl's anger and frustration, as they mirror her own personality, her own background and history. Miss Spitfire was Annie's nickname at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she, a poor half-blind Irish-American orphan was educated. But Miss Spitfire would also have been a good nickname for Helen, at least until Annie is able to break through the barriers of frustration, isolation, and inadequate discipline to "reach" Helen, to teach her the magic of words, of language.
I highly recommend Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller to older children, young adults, to anyone who enjoys engaging, novelistic biographies (and of course, anyone interested in the lives of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan). Sarah Miller truly has a way with words. Annie and Helen are not just stock characters in an informative non-fiction account of Helen Keller's "awakening" they are living, breathing, emotionally nuanced characters, starring in an inspiring story from despair to hope, frustration to joy, isolation to communication. "