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What Is Visible: A Novel Hardcover – June 3, 2014
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The Amazon Book Review
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In this fictional treatment of the life of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to learn language, Elkins aims to show “how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.” After a raging bout of scarlet fever at the age of two, Laura loses her eyes, her hearing, and her ability to taste and smell. Taken from her family home by Dr. Samuel Howe and taught to communicate via hand spelling, Laura soon becomes a celebrated figure attracting hundreds to exhibitions at Howe’s Perkins Institution, including Charles Dickens and Dorothea Dix. But Howe has his own agenda, using Laura to push both the causes of phrenology and anti-Calvinism. When Laura embraces the Baptist faith, she loses Howe’s favor but never loses her fire. Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife, and Laura’s beloved teacher, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection. --Joanne Wilkinson
"WHAT IS VISIBLE contemplates the bare requisites of being human, more fundamentally than most meditations on haves and have-nots... A novel's extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another. This one provides entrée to a nearly unthinkable life, and while no one would want to live there, it's a fascinating place to visit."―Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times Book Review
"Kimberly Elkins gives Bridgman her defiant due in reimagining her fascinating, now-forgotten story... The world Elkins discovers within is anything but muted. In tactile prose, she evokes a soul and a body with hungers (yes, there is sex) that none of Bridgman's guides begins to imagine."―The Atlantic Magazine
"Kimberly Elkins's wonderful novel salvages [Laura Bridgman's] story from the sunken wreckage of history and tells it anew in riveting, poignant detail... "What is Visible" illuminates the historical blindness of men - and women's struggles to be seen and heard. The novel is infused with longing and rich with detail about the social reforms of the Victorian era, the quest for rights and freedom for women and slaves, for the disabled and the poor.... Elkins makes this great American woman visible again, in all her remarkable, fully human complexity."―The Washington Post
"An engrossing and moving read."―Woman's Day (A "Best Book of 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."―BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014
"WHAT IS VISIBLE is remarkable at many levels. It is written in an intelligent, intricate style, populated with many true historical figures, and teeming with convincing period details. Above all, the novel has a unique narrative structure, which illustrates the art of fiction at its best in presenting the interior. A splendid debut indeed."―Ha Jin, National Book Award Winner for Waiting
"I know firsthand how brutally difficult it is to write a creatively rich, humanly revealing novel based on real people in a distant time. Kimberly Elkins does this brilliantly. WHAT IS VISIBLE is not only a compelling, deeply moving novel, it is a fully realized work of art. This is an auspicious debut of an important new writer."―Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"An astonishing debut that vividly brings to life a forgotten chapter of American history. You'll recognize many of the characters in WHAT IS VISIBLE, but its heroine, Laura Bridgman, is likely someone you've never heard of. After you read it, you'll never forget her. Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and at times quite funny, this book is a marvel."―J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine and The Engagements
"I found myself slowly mesmerized by WHAT IS VISIBLE, and then increasingly haunted and bound to the story of Laura Bridgman, the second, deeper, darker invisibility of her life so permanently excavated and restored to memory by the talented hand of Kimberly Elkins and her extraordinary powers of imagination. To say that I was profoundly moved by this novel would be an understatement."―Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
"A wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel... [The protagonist] comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel, showing 'how little one can posses of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.'"―Publishers Weekly (STARRED)
"An affecting portrait which finally provides its idiosyncratic heroine with a worthy voice."―Kirkus Reviews
"Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife, and Laura's beloved teacher, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection."―Booklist
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4 3/4 stars
"The novelist," said E. L. Doctorow, "has to break through the facts to get at the truth".
I was very excited when I read that this book was coming out. A long time hero of mine, Helen Keller is Perkins School for the Blind's most famous student. However, William James in his essay for The Atlantic, stated that there would not have been a Helen Keller without Laura Bridgeman, so famous for a generation before Keller that Charles Dickens wrote of her in his American Notes.
Laura was enrolled at the School after her family could no longer handle her. Having been plunged into a world devoid of senses save touch after a childhood illness and a horrible accident, Laura becomes pupil and protégée of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howell, the founder and head of Perkins, a man who got his own way ( some would say got in his own way) as he used not only Laura and her intelligence, but all his "blinds" in a type of "dog and pony show" that brought the famous and infamous to the school and with them, enough fame and money to allow him to teach and be revered.
Laura's own family wasn't able to help her, and when she moved to the school and was taught his to communicate it was a miracle to most, and an intellect far superior to most was developed. However, she remained a youngster emotionally: the world revolved around her. She clung to Howe until displaced by his marriage to Julia Ward, and Elkins leads us to believe that the two struggled for dominance in his life until after his death.
This is Elkins' historical fiction around the real lives of Laura Bridgeman and her circle. I choose to give it 4 3/4 stars out of five because at times her prose is painful. However, it will have a place on my shelf with my other books by and about Helen Keller
Elkins places Laura Bridgman at the center of a larger and ever expanding canvas—exploring the lives of other characters central to the period: Charles Sumner, John Brown and the Secret Six, Dickens, Dickinson, Annie Sullivan. Two of the most fascinating characters are Julia Ward Howe and Laura's nurse Sarah, two women who work hard to define themselves within the confines of their respective marriages. In the hands of Elkins, Julia Ward Howe (a poet best remembered for penning “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) begins as a spoiled debutante but goes on to take up the banner of women's rights. Another aspect of WHAT IS VISIBLE that amazes is its language: page after page, it is densely lyrical without ever succumbing to the florid excesses one often encounters in nineteenth century prose. Elkins has captured the essence of their language while successfully updating it for the ear of a contemporary reader. It's a symphonic novel, rich with distinctive voices singing contrapuntally, their music overlapping, and struggling for harmony but never willing to sacrifice their own integrity.