What is visible
Imagine losing one of your senses. Now imagine losing all except one. Now imagine that you lost all but the sense of touch when you were only two years old.
That was the unimaginable circumstance of the life of Laura Bridgman. What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins is a heart-rending, thought-provoking novel based on Laura Bridgman’s life and the lives of the many fascinating people who surrounded her. Laura Bridgman was taught to communicate at the age of seven by the use of alphabetical sign language pressed into the palm of the other person. Her teacher was Samuel Gridley Howe, husband of the poet and activist, Julia Ward Howe. Charles Dickens was a personal friend of the Howe’s along with Longfellow and Senator Charles Sumner.
Laura Bridgman was world-famous in her lifetime and was the teacher of Annie Sullivan. And although her fame for having no sense of sight, sound, taste or smell was soon eclipsed by Helen Keller learning to speak, Bridgman was no less an amazing woman for her lack of speech.
Elkins uses this phenomenal historical figure to craft a novel that is much more about isolation, love, and communication than it is about the individual in question. Her writing is lyrical but also a bit stark at times.
As Laura muses over her relationships she says, “Love, I think, is by necessity constructed of a ladder of lies you climb together.”
To learn more about the true Laura Bridgman visit the Perkins Institute’s website.
And to read about Laura Bridgman and Dickens’ other impressions of the United States check out American Notes: And, Picture from Italy by Charles Dickens.