August 10, 2011

Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller

by Sarah Miller

Before Annie Sullivan came into her life, Helen Keller was well on her way to becoming an uncontrollable wild child. With her own impoverished background, poor eyesight, and barely concealed fierceness, Annie is the perfect match for the strong-willed Helen.

Annie's task is far from easy. Helen cannot tolerate her, and rebels every step of the way. But though Annie often despairs, she is also determined. Through sheer grit and perseverance, she succeeds in chipping away Helen's defenses, eventually winning her abiding affection. The scene at the pump is all the more moving when Helen learns t-e-a-c-h-e-r and her own name.

Told from Annie's point-of-view, Sarah Miller ably captures all of Annie's emotions - her loneliness and frustration, her hopes and yearnings. It makes Annie's accomplishment all the more amazing. A compelling read even for those familiar with Annie's and Helen's story.

After reading Miss Spitfire, I was inspired to read Teacher, Helen Keller's own reminiscences about Annie Sullivan. But it's been difficult. The problem is that of voice. Keller sometimes refers to herself in the third person and the language she uses is often florid and melodramatic. Her description of Sullivan makes her sound like a saint or a monster. It made me wonder who is actually telling the story, Keller or someone else (perhaps Nella Braddy Hanney, who wrote the introduction?). But perhaps it is not so surprising when you consider that Keller's experiences cannot help but be colored by her interpreters' versions of them. Keller has written other books, notably The Story of My Life, but I'm not sure if it's worth tackling.

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