The moment when Helen Keller, splashing water over her hand, connects Annie Sullivan spelling W-A-T-E-R with the concept of “water” is part of our national mythology. This is Annie’s story up to that point — her arrival at the Kellers’, her attempts to tame Helen from a wild brat into a civilized child, her own horrible childhood told in flashbacks.
Richard Peck gave the following cover blurb: “high drama about how language unlocks the world.” Which I think covers it nicely. When you think about it, this is an oddly cerebral book for kids (aimed at 10-14, I’d say?) — the central question with which Annie occupies most of her thoughts is, “How can I get Helen to understand the concept of language?” Not generally the stuff of high drama.
And yet it is (and not just because Annie slaps Helen around a whole lot). It’s a fascinating thing to consider, what language is and how it happens, and Miller makes these questions absolutely accessible. I was less drawn in by Annie’s quixotic attempt to make an emotional connection with Helen, but I’m going to chalk that one up to my almost complete lack of a mothering instinct for small children.
Miller also manages to deal pretty smoothly with 19th-century discipline, which can make for awkward 21st-century reading. As I said, Annie gets awfully physical with Helen — not to hurt her, but to get her under some control. I’m not sure how else anyone, even today, would deal with a wild, spoiled 6-year-old who thought nothing of kicking, biting, and breaking people’s teeth, but it’s uncomfortable to read about in this post-spanking era.
More subtly difficult is the way Annie (who was blind herself) thinks about disability:
Turned in profile, her misshapen eye is hidden from my view. I see only half of her face — the pretty half. I fancy it’s also the bright half, the obedient half. Is this the side of Helen that let me touch her moments ago?
Yeesh. Of course, it makes perfect sense that Annie would have seen things that way, as a product of her time. But it’s by no means a prejudice we’re free of in the 21st century, and this is a subtle enough expression (one of many in the book) of the idea of disability as a sort of “devil’s mark” on an otherwise good child that I hope kids don’t just take it in stride.