Atheneum (Simon and Schuster imprint)
Ages 10 and up
Authors that try to tackle any aspect of Helen Keller’s life in a children’s literary format are simultaneously blessed and cursed. On the one hand, talk about God’s gift to authors. The emotional ups and downs of Helen’s tale, the (dare I say) hope of her life, I mean she’s a great historical character. Loads more interesting to a nine-year-old than your average everyday biographical figures. So there’s that. On the other hand, none of this is a secret. As a result, my library’s Helen Keller section of biographies is rivaled only by Martin Luther King Jr. So when I saw that someone had done a middle grade work of fiction regarding Helen and Annie Sullivan’s early days, I hardly gave it a thought. Why read what we already know? I mean, if everyone knows a series of facts about someone, can there be any worthwhile reason to read yet ANOTHER story about her life and trials? The answer, as it happens, is yes. Debut author Sarah Miller shows us that even the most familiar story can become edge-of-your-seat gripping when the writing’s cool and collected.
There’s a reason this book is called "Miss Spitfire". Turns out, that was the nickname bestowed on Annie Sullivan when she attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Irish, alone in the world, half-blind, and with guts galore, Ms. Sullivan is terrified at the prospect of her very first job. She’s being sent to work with one Helen Keller, a blind, deaf child. The hope is to work a "miracle" on her and teach her to bridge the gap between signing and the use of words. The task turns out to be more than she gambled for, however, when it appears that Helen has had the run of her household for years. Uncivilized, uncouth, and unrepentant, her wishy-washy parents have failed to discipline, thereby allowing Helen to always get what she wants. If Annie didn’t see Helen coming, though, you can be darn certain that Helen didn’t see Annie either. Now the battle between the two firebrands has begun and it’s time to see whether or not the stubbornness of a child who has always had her way can compete with the stubbornness of a woman as tough and smart as Annie Sullivan.
The reason the Helen Keller story works is because Helen is hell on earth. She’s not the angelic creature just waiting for a helping hand. No dewy-eyed, saintly personality-challenged naïf she. She’s not Little Eva or Little Nell. No she was, to use my grandmother’s phrase, a pistol. So for a book like this to work you need to really feel for Annie Sullivan. When Helen cracks her in the jaw with a hardheaded doll, you have to want to strangle the child with your own bare hands and not just Annie’s. As an author, Miller’s smart enough to know how to tease out the dramatic elements of this tale. Seeing Ms. Sullivan’s background, you are all the more impressed at her restraint around Helen. Considering that the girl has enough crafty qualities to try the patience of a saint, and considering that Ms. Sullivan’s own father was abusive, you would think such tendency towards violence might easily pass down from father to daughter. Instead, the opposite is true. She does not hit because she knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of a blow. I was very taken with the moral in this story that rules and order breed love. It is Annie’s restraint and discipline that in the end manages to tease out that love.
Annie’s loneliness and need almost becomes their own characters in this book. Right from the start we learn that "The loneliness in my heart is an old acquaintance." Yet Miller plays Annie as increasingly desperate for human affection. She constantly looks for love from Helen, even though the child has little to no interest in forming any kind of a relationship at first. And when a baby gives Annie a kiss (lunging at her, as the text says, "like a lecher"), the woman says that, "Warmth ripples down to my toes," and that she is "Woozy with pleasure." The writing here, as you can see, is good.
Technically I should probably have a copy of "The Miracle Worker" in front of me for reference. It would allow me to note whether or not the emotional beats in both the play and Helen’s story are identical or not. Then again, maybe it’s better this way. It’s clear that "Miss Spitfire" is a story of Helen’s teacher, not just Helen herself. I’m sure that if Miller had wanted to she could have written the book from Helen’s point of view, but as far as I can tell that way lays only tears. Seeing Annie’s past allows us to note how much she and her young pupil have in common. It’s a clever motif. So clever, in fact, that I feel certain that the kids who read this story will have little difficulty getting inside of the mind of an adult. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the protagonist and the reader, particularly in children’s novels, if the hero is fully grown. Here I have no qualms.
The book is meticulously referenced, much to my relief. There’s an author’s note, photographs of the characters and locations, books for further reading, a plethora of websites and videos to visit for further info, a timeline, and even a list of sources (print and online). Better still, Miller knows enough to point out the elements of her tale that jar with the narrative. At one point Annie sing-signs the words to the song "Bessie’s Song to Her Doll", because they fit the situation so well. In her Author’s Note, Miller is quick to point out that the poem was written some years later by Lewis Carroll and could not have been used as it is here. It just happens to fit the book well.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)