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Friday, May 13, 2011

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller

As an adult, I found this a delightful window into the world of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. The author took the known writings of Anne and details of her background and wrote the story of her early work with Helen in Anne’s voice. Her perspective is intriguing and adds an important component of the story: what in Anne’s background helped give her the extraordinary strength and determination to break through to Helen? (In addition to her being Irish, that is.)

The story not only adds realistic details: Anne’s doubts, her fear of failure, and her strong emotions, negative and positive, toward Helen, but it meets the vital criteria of telling a good story. No doubt this book will add an extra layer of complexity to the Helen Keller story.

Yet… I refrain from giving this a full safety pass for tweens. My teenager and I read it, liked it bunches, and had a productive discussion about the romanticized, rather ideal version of Helen’s story that we get from many books about Helen Keller’s story versus how it might really have been. We discussed that when an author takes on the voice of a character, you can gather historically true detail but it is only one perspective and not the final say. Tweens often think that what they read is how it is or was.

Anne was Catholic, and there is an anecdote about a kind priest who helped her receive eye surgery at a young age. I found it of note that while Anne was Catholic, there was never a moment in which she turned to God or relied on any help other than her own self. In fact, it comes through that God’s influence in her work is either incidental or unnoticed. I don’t know if that is accurate to Anne or just a modern interpretation. But since the story was referenced through Anne’s own writings, perhaps Anne wrote nothing of a personal faith.

Though I’m not going to articulate it here, I think there is an argument to be made for the romanticized version of the Helen Keller story to be told at a young age. I would not assume that this version is the best for tweens.

There is a strong tone here that is very different from the typical child’s version of the story, and I think parents should consider the age and maturity of their tween carefully. I tend to lean to the cautious side because I think our pop culture has lost its judgment and will toss too much information at too young an age. Reading the first chapter or two should be plenty to let you know if this book is a fit for your tween.

The voice of Anne can be quite negative and strongly so at times. The details of Anne’s background weren’t known even by Helen until much later in life. She lived in an orphanage, her father was a drunk, her mother died when Anne was young, and her brother died in the orphanage. There is a reference to whores a couple of times in order to emphasize the rough nature of the place she grew up in. The details given are appropriate to the age group it’s written for; just be aware that there is a lot more in this story to absorb than the usual Helen Keller details. And it is not told in a Pollyanna style. It’s worth a preview for the young tweens.

SAFETY RATING: 2 Flags

2 comments:

Sarah Miller June 7, 2011 at 8:46 AM  

Thank you for a thoughtful review.

Generally I don't respond to reviews (it's hard to be honest when you know authors are reading over your shoulder) but I think your readers might appreciate an answer to this question:

I found it of note that while Anne was Catholic, there was never a moment in which she turned to God or relied on any help other than her own self. In fact, it comes through that God’s influence in her work is either incidental or unnoticed. I don’t know if that is accurate to Anne or just a modern interpretation. But since the story was referenced through Anne’s own writings, perhaps Anne wrote nothing of a personal faith.

Annie's lack of reliance on religion is true to history. In her later life she was atheist, and this was eventually a cause of sorrow for Helen as an adult. Helen was an ardent Swedenborgian and sincerely mourned her teacher's absence of faith. Annie knew this, but although it pained her to see Helen's unhappiness, she never reconciled a relationship with God.

I don't know when Annie abandoned religion, so I approached the subject somewhat neutrally in Miss Spitfire. The references to God and Catholicism reflect the culture of Annie's upbringing, but as you realized they are not necessarily a window into her personal beliefs.

Anonymous,  June 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM  

Hello Sarah,
A wise observation about writing reviews with an author in audience...but I am glad you posted. This is interesting to me and to the two of my girls who thoroughly enjoyed reading Miss Spitfire. It started a discussion of faith as a gift then.. googling information on American Sign Language.
Even before this background information, my girls gained a new perspective on Helen and Annie after reading your version of the story. Most books we read don't generate so much interaction. Thanks much!

I'm not anonymous: but I don't have time to argue with my computer which won't let me post my comment from my own blog. sigh. ~tween lit crit

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