BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014

The best historical fiction offers readers a new look at a well-known subject, or illuminates an episode or individual that has been lost to history. Playwright Kimberly Elkins achieves the latter in What Is Visible, a strikingly original debut novel about Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to communicate through finger spelling.

Born in New Hampshire in 1829, Laura Bridgman lost all her senses except for touch by the time she was 2 years old. She was sent to Perkins Institute as a child, where, under the tutelage of founder Samuel Gridley Howe, she was taught to read, write and communicate through a manual alphabet of letters tapped into her hand—a system that years later, she taught a poor Irish orphan named Annie Sullivan. Bridgman was a celebrity of her time; she was regularly featured in Perkins’ Exhibition Days, and there was even a Laura Bridgman doll. After Charles Dickens wrote about her in his American Notes, she received international acclaim and was considered one of the most famous women of the 19th century, second only to Queen Victoria. Yet few people know about her today.

Elkins follows Laura from her teenage years at Perkins through adulthood. Elkins’ Laura is temperamental, intensely focused—perhaps because her modes of communication were so limited—and blessed with a sharp wit. Though Laura is the primary narrator, her story is also told by the brilliant but controlling Howe, with whom Laura had a complex relationship; his wife, the poet Julia Ward Howe; and Laura’s teacher, Sarah Wright, from whom she was tragically parted too soon. It unfolds against a background rich with progressive and social causes, from women’s suffrage to abolitionism.

What Is Visible marries historical research with lyrical and sometimes starkly honest writing, creating an intriguing novel about an educational experiment that touches issues of gender, philosophy, religion and history. Elkins may occasionally venture into undocumented areas, such as Laura’s sexuality, but her choices are informed and have emotional depth and resonance. What Is Visible is a convincing portrayal of a uniquely interior world and the deeply human need to feel and connect, despite the body’s limitations.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Kimberly Elkins about this book.

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