Helen Keller in Love
A captivating novel that explores the little-known romance of a beloved American icon
Helen Keller has long been a towering figure in the pantheon of world heroines. Yet the enduring portrait of her in the popular imagination is The Miracle Worker, which ends when Helen is seven years old.
Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines a part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke of or wrote about: the man she once loved. When Helen is in her thirties and Annie Sullivan is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as a private secretary. Peter Fagan opens a new world to Helen, and their sensual interactions—signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers—quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair. It’s not long before Helen’s secret is discovered and met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. As pressure mounts, the lovers plot to elope, and Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires.
Richly textured and deeply sympathetic, Sultan’s highly inventive telling of a story Keller herself would not tell is both a captivating romance and a rare glimpse into the mind and heart of an inspirational figure.
Peter Fagan was a miracle I was not prepared for. Annie, my teacher, was so sick she couldn't translate for me day and night, so Peter came to be my private secretary until Annie got better. The scent of him still clings to my skin as I sit on this porch waiting for him to come: his scent of woods, heat and water: that scent that told me right away that he would change my life.
The night we met, Lake Bally in Appleton, Wisconsin smelled of rain. Annie and I sat despondent over the failure of the audience to listen to our Chautauqua lecture tour when Peter arrived from Boston. He slid into the billowing, creaking tent—in the night his scent came easily to me: I inhaled typewriter ink, cigarette smoke, and the strange, muskrat smell I always associated with men. I held the edge of my chair and felt his footsteps as Peter swung closer to the stage where Annie and I sat; Annie shifted beside me, saw him, and spelled her impression into my hand: "He flips open a brown reporter's notebook, waves a cigarette with thin, with long fingers," she reported, and I lifted my head, sensing electricity in the air.
"Is he handsome?" I asked, nervously smoothing my hair.
"All I can say is thank God you're blind." We both laughed.
"Is he that bad?" I cocked my head. Peter felt closer. Annie said, shifting in her chair, "He's looking left, now right." Annie went on, her fingers flying in my palm: "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, his shirt is unbuttoned. And he's got that shifty look of a person ready to flee."
"Flee?" I leaned closer to Annie.
"His family fled Germany," Annie went on. "Pogroms. He's a socialist now," she told me. "Another supporter of lost causes—Like you."
We both laughed again, but I felt a slight mocking in Annie's palm. "Do I look all right?" Always I've liked men better than women; even at age seven I'd ask Annie to make me pretty. Now, dress tugged down just a bit, I sat up straighter.
"He doesn't see you," Annie rapped. "But he is looking. He's turning this way. Dark hair, he's shaking his jacket off his shoulders, and oh, brown eyes." Relief washed through me as Peter rounded the table. Through the soles of my shoes I felt the sssaah, ssaaah of his boots until he swung up to the table and grasped my hand.
"Miss Kel-ler, a pleasure to see you." His voice rough as twine thrummed through my fingertips when I touched his throat.
He drew me in.
"The pleasure is mine," I spelled into his rough palm.
"The famous Helen Keller," he repeated. That night, in the dome of the tent on Wisconsin's shore, with the crowd filing out into the heat of the night, I grasped Peter's hand in mine and felt the delicacy of his fingers.
"You're engaged," I blurted out. "To help us."
He just threw his head back and laughed, his throat a lush drink of creamy milk. "Yes, I'm engaged in the important mission of taking over for Miss Sullivan and getting you two safely home." And I believed him.
"I'll take her to dinner if you'd like," Peter turned to Annie; as always when I'm with two people I held Annie's hand with my left hand and listened as she spelled. At the same time I held my other hand to Peter's lips and lip read his response. His mouth moved quickly, excitedly under my fingers; Annie's spelling—usually up to 80 words per minute poured into my palm—was weary. Peter looped his arm through mine; he led me through the tent robust with the odors of farmers, dirt tracked in on their shoes, and the scent of machinery still in their clothes, and when Peter said, "Watch your step," I knew we were about to cross from the inside of the tent to the rough, patchy grass outside.
Just as we stood at the tent's edge the cool night air hit me: it was filled with the vibrations of the dinner bell—pulsing and fading on Lake Michigan's shores.
"Let's eat," Peter said beside me. "Are you hungry?"
"Starving," I said right back.
The steady thrum of the dinner bell chimed in the night air. As I felt its vibrations in my hands I hesitated, then stopped on the threshold of the tent.
Before walking out into the night that bell stopped tolling, leaving a fist of empty air—and I can tell you now what I did not know then: that bell was just like Peter. Booming with joy. But soon empty. Gone. I held his hand more fiercely in mine.
“Rosie Sultan is adventurous—and brave. She has immersed herself in every available piece of information about Keller and, to an amazing degree, puts herself into her heroine’s silent, dark world. Sultan looks within, telling Helen’s story in the first person. We are taken into the isolation and limitations that Keller lived with her entire life. . . . Helen Keller in Love is touching and fun to read. . . . Sultan has given the adult Helen Keller a new voice and reminds us of both her brilliance and her humanity.”—The Washington Post
“Captivating . . . a riveting story.”—Good Housekeeping
“Ambitious. Sultan’s sensibility is consistently contemporary, a wise choice given Keller’s distinctly modern views. An advocate for women’s rights, an unapologetic socialist and fierce opponent to World War I, Keller exposed and challenged oppression and prejudice in all its myriad forms. Her voice in this novel is evocative of any current celebrity’s. She feels imprisoned by her reputation and her fans’ expectations of her, weary of being the meal ticket for her family, and harassed by the press. As much as she loves and needs Annie, she also chafes at their interdependence. And above all, she is unashamed of her own sexuality, eager to express it, and resentful of her mother and sister’s determination to keep her pure and caged within the confines of propriety. . . . Sultan does a fine job of demonstrating how Keller navigates the world with just three senses.”—Boston Globe
“Going well beyond Keller’s Miracle Worker days . . . Sultan convincingly imagines that this much-admired if oversimplified icon wanted nothing more than to be treated like a woman.
“With empathy, imagination, and vivid sensory detail, Rosie Sultan’s Helen Keller in Love gives voice—and scent and touch—to an iconic American heroine during a little known chapter in her life.”
—Jane Mendelsohn, author of I Was Amelia Earhart
“In this richly imagined and moving novel, Rosie Sultan brings alive the history of Helen Keller—the brilliant miraculous creature who stole the heart and sympathy of the world—while also exploring how she must have felt as a woman: the loneliness, longing,and great vulnerability. The result is a vivid, sensuous portrait full of sound and vision.”
—Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes
“Helen Keller in Love is involving, passionate, and deeply felt. It tells this little-known, remarkable story with a loving heart, beautiful language, and great commitment to its heroine. Helen Keller was a woman with blood in her veins—this book makes you feel it.”
—Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt
“Eye-opening and thoroughly involving . . . This well-written novel will appeal to those who enjoy women’s fiction as well as readers of historical and biographical fiction. A thoroughly enjoyable read that should entice many to seek out one of the biographies Sultan recommends in an afterword.”—Library Journal
“Debut novelist Rosie Sultan’s Helen Keller in Love spins a tale of forbidden love, invoking scents, textures and tastes on every page to show how Helen ‘saw’ the world. She grounds the story in well-known incidents from Helen’s childhood, but draws on later biographies, speeches and letters to show Helen as a woman, intelligent and determined but forced by her handicaps to be dependent on her family and employees. . . . Sultan skillfully expresses Helen's main frustrations: at the public for refusing to take her seriously when she speaks on political issues unrelated to blindness, and at her family and friends for refusing to see her as a grown woman, with a woman’s desires. Helen Keller in Love holds readers’ attention with a fresh depiction of a woman famous for overcoming her physical handicaps, forced to fight for her right to love.”—Katie Noah Gibson, Shelf Awareness
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