When I first read about the historical fiction novel, Helen Keller in Love by Rose Sultan, a story about the wildly popular American icon and her semi-secret lover, I was geeked beyond belief. I had never heard about Keller’s romance, and as someone who idolized Keller throughout my entire life, I just had to read this book! As a young girl, I was blown away by Keller’s story, after seeing the film, The Miracle Worker, and later, reading several books and stories about her. Between Helen Keller and Mary Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie), I convinced myself that I would be ok if I were to go blind someday, because they showed me that they could be ok.
It is a good thing I found the inner strength to handle possible blindness, since I actually may go blind someday in the near future. As an adult, I found out my father and his parents went blind in their 40′s. Currently, I have Myasthenia Gravis, peripheral vision loss, night blindness, lattice degeneration, severe myopathy, and possible early onset Glaucoma, so, to write that I am inspired by Helen Keller would be the understatement of the year. Without Keller, I would be terrified to face my future.
After finishing the novel last week, it pains me greatly to admit to you that I didn’t love this book. While I appreciate the great deal of research that went into this book, and how much of the novel is based on documented facts, I had a problem with two conflicting passages in the book. For example, on page 51, Sultan writes, “I still remember the burning, like a fireplace poker turned around behind my eyes, at nineteen months old when my fever broke, and I was going blind. Day by day, the sunlight pierced my eyes like fire. Slowly my sight burned to ash. Nothing left. My fingers still ache with the felt memory of how fiercely I rubbed my infant eyes of pain.” Then, on pages 73-74, the author writes, “I can’t remember losing my eyesight, or my hearing. That was my good fortune–to forget those days and nights of fever, of pain.” With just 22 pages between the memory of Keller remembering, and then not remembering going blind, I couldn’t get over this boo-boo. And, to be completely honest, I wasn’t thrilled about reading about Keller’s sex life. Not that there was anything wrong with the way the author wrote the sex scenes, or the fact that Keller got it on with Peter Fagan, a man she wasn’t married to, I am just not a big fan of reading about sex in books. Call me crazy, but don’t call me a prude–I’d just rather have sex, than read about it. This is why I wouldn’t touch a book like 50 Shades of Grey with a ten foot pole.
I don’t want you to get the impression that I hated this book, or that you shouldn’t bother to read it, because you should. There were so many enjoyable moments in it, like when Keller is talking about her multiple adventures meeting presidents, or how she dined with Andrew Carnegie, and how her friend Mark Twain called her “a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world.” I always enjoy reading about Keller and her dedicated teacher and companion, Annie Sullivan. Keller lived an amazing and inspiring life, and Sultan does a good job covering many of her adventures in this book.
Purchase your copy of Helen Keller in Love: A Novel at Amazon.com.
About the Author:
Rosie Sultan won a PEN Discovery Award for fiction. She earned her MFA at Goddard College and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has taught writing at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Suffolk University. She lives with her husband and son outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
Q. Why did you decide to write about this relatively unknown period in Helen Keller’s life? How did you first learn about it?
RS: I’ve been fascinated by Helen Keller since I was about seven years old and got my first book about her. I’ve read almost everything about her since then. A few years ago I read a new biography called Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann. Toward the end of the book was a short chapter that told the story of how, at the age of thirty–seven, Helen had a secret love affair with Peter Fagan. I put the book down and said to myself, “There’s a big story here.” Within a few days I was on my way to writing Helen Keller in Love.
Why did I write about this little–known period in Helen’s life? Because once I knew she had a love affair I saw her as more than an icon: I saw her as a woman with vulnerabilities and conflicting desires. I wrote about this period to bring to life the complexities of Helen Keller’s very human heart.
Q. What are the challenges in writing a historical novel? Did you feel a certain responsibility to Helen when sharing her story? How do you think she would react to your novel?
RS: The challenges of writing a historical novel are to fully explore, in a deep and almost reverent way, the life of a fellow human being in the context of the wider world. Helen Keller was a political activist who protested against the United States’ entry into the First World War, a leader who advocated for the rights of the deaf/blind, and a woman who worked for the rights of others while chafing against restrictions put on her own life. The historical novel allows all of those elements to come alive. It is a thrilling form.
Did I feel a responsibility to her? Absolutely. Yet I also felt that this was an opportunity to tell parts of Helen Keller’s story that she could not, or would not, fully tell. My hope would be that she would see the book as a respectful tribute to her. A love letter, almost, to the radical, deeply adventurous life she led.
Q. How did you come to write the book from the perspective of a blind/deaf person? Especially since you are neither blind nor deaf?
RS: I guess the way I see it is that I wrote the book from the perspective of Helen Keller. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the several books and hundreds of letters written by Helen describing her world. And what a gift those books and letters are; they bring to life in precise detail how she experienced the world from a sensory perspective. These books and letters describe her life as a young woman, her evolving political views, her deep religious faith, and how she perceived herself and the world around her.
I could not have written a book from the perspective of any blind–deaf person. But Helen made it possible for me to write from hers.
Q. Helen describes her world as “a tangible white dark . . . a deep fog, rough to the fingers” (p. 9). Where did this image come from? How did you meet the challenge of imagining what a sightless person “sees”?
RS: The image is based on Helen Keller’s very apt description of her world. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, she wrote, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in . . . ?” The image was so precise in its effort to convey Helen’s experience that I paraphrased it in my novel. She says in the text of the novel that she wrote this description in one of her books. This signals the reader that the phrase is, or is based on, her own words. I repeated this process at key points in the book.
Conveying Helen’s experience was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. To do so, I closely read her own descriptions of her world. The main texts I studied were her autobiography and her truly amazing book called The World I Live In.
Q. In several sections of the book you describe Helen’s sexual experiences. Some people might find these scenes unsettling or even slightly inappropriate. Do you agree?
RS: I’ve gotten this question a lot. And, I have to admit, at first I was really surprised by it. Because, for me, when I was writing the novel I was just in the story. And I was deeply aware of Helen Keller as a complex woman with emotional and physical desires. A woman with a profound desire for love. Suddenly I saw this saint like, iconic figure as the complex woman that she really was. So writing about her as a sexual and sensual woman felt completely natural and completely normal. It was a natural part of both the story and the person Helen Keller was.
Q. Annie Sullivan devoted her entire life to Helen, and her complete and utter dedication is admirable but also somewhat perplexing. What do you think motivated her to give her so much of her life to Helen?
RS: In my research for this book I discovered that Annie Sullivan was as fascinating as Helen Keller. Annie was a very complicated woman from a background of poverty and deprivation, who was blind for many years of her life. She transformed Helen by teaching her language, yes. But Annie was also deeply transformed by her role as Helen’s teacher. Through her work with Helen, Annie, for the first time, found love, stability, and joy.
Yet their mutual dependency was problematic. Even when Annie married, later in life, she still devoted much of her time and energy to Helen, and that was a source of great conflict. Helen was always Annie’s primary focus, and that, along with Annie’s own personal demons, made the building of her own life nearly impossible.
Q. Many people believe that hardships such as physical disability can fortify a person’s spirit. Do you agree?
RS: I can only say what I know from Helen Keller’s own writings. She was seen as a role model of how one can strengthen one’s character by overcoming difficulties. Indeed, Helen Keller came to believe that her dual handicaps provided her a special role in the world, to help others equally afflicted.
But, as Helen Keller also acknowledged, there is a cost to this idea. Much of her life was spent demonstrating that she was equal to the “normal” hearing and sighted world: many of her books and speeches told of the benefits she derived from overcoming her difficulties. Yet that story, in its very triumph, also created a gap between Helen and the larger society. Certainly Helen Keller enjoyed the respect of many for her story of triumph, but she also suffered from loneliness for being set apart, or put on a pedestal.
Q. There are moments in the novel where Helen, in retrospect, sees hints in Peter’s behavior as to the end of their relationship. Do you believe their romance was doomed from the start?
RS: No, I really don’t. I think they both came into the relationship with genuine curiosity and excitement. They were both highly intelligent, passionate, and committed to causes they believed in. So I wouldn’t say the relationship was doomed from the start. I would say that as it progressed they both became aware of the pressures on them, and they struggled to move forward in spite of those pressures. That, to me, is one of the beauties of this story—the way they tried to form a relationship based on love, a truly unusual relationship in which they would have to create their own rules, find their own way, yet so much was against it.
Q. Considering that Helen was a woman who gave so much of her life to the public, why do you think she so rarely discussed her relationship with Peter?
RS: The answer to that question is complicated, but one clue can be found in Helen’s own writings. In her midlife memoir, Midstream, she writes ever so briefly about her love affair with Peter. To the entire affair she devotes perhaps a few paragraphs, at best. And in a startling admission of her own mixed feelings about her role in keeping secrets from her mother, her teacher, and the larger world that thought they “knew” her, she writes, “I am a human being, with a human being’s frailties and inconsistencies.” To me, that quote is heartbreaking. It’s such a poignant plea to be accepted as, after all, merely human.
Q. In the afterword, you refer to a number of nonfiction and reference resources you used when writing the novel, but perhaps you could speak a little bit about the fiction writers who have influenced your work. Whose writing do you admire?
RS: I admire a wide range of writers, but I especially I love novels with characters who are driven by their own desires yet shaped by the forces of history as well. So I have read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day for the sheer force of its storytelling and its perfect blend of history and character. My copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is worn out from many readings: what a great story of war and love! Jane Mendelsohn’s lyrical novel I Was Amelia Earhart has a dreamy, poetic quality that resonates long after the novel is read, and then of course there is Marguerite Duras’ incomparable work of love and longing, The Lover. In all these novels illuminating, funny, complex characters grapple with both their personal desires and the shifting desires and behaviors of their own historical eras. That is what I love.
Q. What is your next project? Would you write another historical novel?
RS: The research I did over a period of several years for Helen Keller in Love has yielded enough material for another book, so yes, I will definitely write another historical novel. I’ve already started it and I’m very excited about it. Look for it in the future!
Helen Keller in Love Book Giveaway:
1 winner will receive a copy of this book.
**Open to U.S. and Canadian residents.
**No P.O. boxes, please.
**Do the mandatory entry. If you win this giveaway, you must respond to my email within 24 hours in order to claim your prize.
**All comments must be separate to count as separate entries. For example, if you follow me on Facebook and Twitter, leave 2 separate comments, one with your Facebook name, and one with your Twitter name. Or, if you posted about the giveaway on your blog, leave 5 numbered comments, all with a link to your giveaway.
**Please read the additional rules here.
HOW TO ENTER:
+1 MORE ENTRY: Like my The Girl from the Ghetto page on Facebook. Make sure to leave your Facebook name in your comment.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Add me as a friend (GirlFrom TheGhetto) on Facebook. Make sure to leave your Facebook name in your comment.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Share a link on your Facebook wall with the following comment: Join me & enter The Girl from the Ghetto’s Helen Keller in Love Book Giveaway here http://tinyurl.com/7bot27m. Make sure to leave a comment with a link to your Facebook profile message.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Friend request Rosie Sultan on Facebook.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Follow @rosiesultan on Twitter. Make sure to leave your @Twitter name in your comment.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Follow me @NerdGirlBlogger on Twitter. Make sure to leave your @Twitter name in your comment.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Follow me on Twitter and tweet the following: RT @NerdGirlBlogger – Enter to #Win @VikingBooks #Book #Giveaway for ‘Helen Keller in Love’ by @rosiesultan here http://tinyurl.com/7bot27m. You can tweet 6x a day (Once every 4 hours) for even more chances to win. Make sure to leave a link to your tweet in a comment below.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Subscribe to my blog via email or Feedburner.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Follow me and/or share a link to this post on Pinterest.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Friend request me on Goodreads.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Add me to your circle on Google +.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Follow me on StumbleUpon. Make sure to leave me your name.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Rank me on Klout by giving me a K+ in Contests, Giveaways, Food, Blogging, or another topic.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Subscribe to my YouTube Channel.
+1 MORE ENTRY: Comment here and tell me why you need to win this giveaway. Do you love historical fiction? Are you a fan of Helen Keller? Are you into reading about sex and romance in books, or, do you just love winning free stuff?
+5 MORE ENTRIES: Write about this giveaway on your own blog. Make sure to post a link to http://thegirlfromtheghetto.wordpress.com, and leave me 5 copies of your link via comment here.
Contest ends Tuesday, May 8, 2011 at 10 p.m.
Disclosure: While I was not paid for this post, I was sent a copy of the book, in exchange to write an honest review.