Helen in Love
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The astonishing and imaginative debut novel about Helen Keller and the man she loved
What comes to mind when you think of Helen Keller? Is it the deaf-mute wild child at the water pump outside her Tuscumbia, Alabama, home portrayed in The Miracle Worker or the adult activist for the rights of the disabled and women, the socialist who vehemently opposed war? Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines an intimate part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke or wrote about: her one and only love affair.
Peter Fagan, a reporter from Boston, steps in as her secretary when her companion Annie Sullivan falls ill. The world this opens up for her is not the stuff of grade school biographies. Their affair meets with stern disapproval from Annie and from Helen’s mother, and when the lovers plot to elope, Helen is trapped between their expectations and her innermost desires. Sultan’s courageous novel insists on Helen’s right to desire, to human frailty—to be fully and completely alive.
Copyright © by 2012 by Rosie Sultan
They say that love is blind. But fame can blind a person, too. That night Peter led me across the grass outside the Chautauqua tent to where rows of metal tables behind the hotel were stacked high with food: country hams with salt, yeasty breads, the sharp, green scent of peas, even the iron scent of radish floated past as he sat me down under the cool of a trailing willow tree. I moved my fingers over the slim knife, rounded spoon, plate, and thick-rimmed tumbler atop a rough place mat. Immediately “seeing” them in my mind’s eye, I picked up chicken, beets, grilled corn from heaping platters. Peter, his dark hair curling down his neck, eagerly took his place beside me when I touched him in the heat of the night—he was a slender, regal animal. “I’ll feed you,” he laughed.
“I’m blind and deaf,” I spelled back. “Not dumb. Do you think I can’t feed myself ?”
I knew I wasn’t the woman he expected—and I liked it. Chicken in hand, I offered Peter a taste and he opened his mouth to bite.
“Stop.” Annie had crossed the grass from the tent and put her hand on my arm. Peter lowered his chicken leg to the plate. “Before you eat, you work,” she said to Peter, all the while rapidly spelling her words into my palm. “First, you translate the daily newspapers, then the correspondence. Got it? If a newspaper comes, you spell it to her. A letter: the same thing. You translate everything—and I mean everything—conversation, radio news reports, bits of speech on the streets as you pass by—into Helen’s hand. You can start with all this mail.”
For eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for over twenty years Annie had spelled into my hand. She got migraines now. Her trachoma made her eyes burn so that she picked at her eyelids till her eyelashes fell out. At that moment a cough racked her again; at times that cough seemed a relief, if only because it would give her the smallest time away from her endless duties with me.
I felt Annie push the heavy mailbag across the table, closer to Peter, its ssshhuh making the table vibrate just slightly beneath my hands. A slight shift of air followed by the scent of ink told me Annie had pulled out a newspaper. “The Boston Globe,” Annie said, handing the paper to Peter. “Read to her.”
“Ah,” spelled Peter to me. “I’m your voice.” His stomach rumbled. “My appetite will have to wait.”
“You’re her link to the world,” Annie said. He reluctantly slid the newspaper open and turned to his job as secretary.
I felt lit and burning as a fuse.
Peter licked bits of cherry-apple crumble from his lips, rearranged his tie, his mouth moving fast under my listening fingers when he read of the Red Sox in the lead for the pennant—maybe they’d finally win the World Series, the bums!—then suddenly his lips turned to pools of sorrow, as he flipped to the world news:
SPECIAL TO THE BOSTON GLOBE BY NOAH SANDER
SOMME, FRANCE, JULY 5, 1916—Yesterday,
57,000 British soldiers were killed in one day at
the Battle of Somme. Tens of thousands were
wounded. The battle rages on
“What a stupid war!” I burst out. Peter’s fingernails pressed into my palm as he read, more furious, then softer in sorrow. No one wanted to hear my opinions about politics, world events, or Socialism. And certainly not that I was against this war, and urged all Americans to stop President Wilson from entering this foolish waste of human life in the name of capitalism. The Brooklyn Eagle said that as a blind woman I had no right to speak about politics, but Peter’s hand warmed mine and I heated up in rage. “President Wilson,”
I said, “is as blind as I am. Fifty-seven thousand soldiers killed in one day in France? For what?” The battle in Europe raged. And even though the United States remained neutral, daily President Wilson called for our entry into the war. Weekly my desk was piled high with desperate letters from German, French, and English soldiers blinded in battle, letters pleading for help.
Peter laughed at my comment about President Wilson.
“Why, Miss Keller,” he spelled, “you’re calling the president blind?”
“Why not? He promised peace, but now there’s talk that he’ll raise the U.S. military from one hundred thousand in the next year. Is he blind to the consequences of that?”
“I’m a radical, too, but he is the president.”
“And I’m Helen Keller. I’ve met with every sitting president since Grover Cleveland,” I spelled into his palm.
“I know, I know. You were the darling of kings and queens by the time you were ten. They kept abreast of your activities in newspapers worldwide: how you could read Homer, and they all saw that photo of you posed so quaintly with your little white dog. Your Radcliffe graduation was front-page news in 1904, and Dr. Edward Everett Hale wrote that your future upon graduation was unlimited.”
“You . . .”
“I’m not a crack reporter for nothing. I’ve done my research.”
We sat together, the mailbag giving off its musty canvas scent. I didn’t want to tell Peter there was one thing that was very limited in my life.
Foolish, I know. But I believed love would be like the romance novels I secretly read. As I traced my fingers over the Braille print of those books, I knew my lover would be torrid. A darkness at his core. I would struggle against him, try to keep him away, but he would win my love by his kindness: he would know without my telling him just how to take care of me. I had dreamed of it. I can tell you now that in romance novels women have little power. I had too much. I didn’t know that a man doesn’t want to compete with a woman. They want to shine, to be the real star.
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