“My heart is singing for joy this morning.”
-Anne Sullivan to Sophia Hopkins, March 1887
So begins one of the chapters in Sarah Miller‘s debut novel Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, and her quote from Annie Sullivan describes just how I felt when I finished this magical book.
Last spring, I issued an invitation to authors of historical fiction, to send me information about their books for a presentation I’m doing this fall at the New York State Reading Association Conference. I heard from wonderful writers — some whose works I knew and some who were new to me. But one title REALLY caught my eye: Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller. First, it got my attention because the titles of our books are so similar. When I opened it up to start reading, it got my attention in another way — a sweep-you-away-in-the-story kind of way.
Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller tells the story of Annie Sullivan, the young woman who battled beliefs of the time and fought with every ounce of energy she had to give Helen Keller the gift of language. Sarah Miller tells the story in Annie’s voice — and tells it with a passion that speaks to the depth of her research and her pure love for this historical figure. Miss Spitfire not only tells the story we see in The Miracle Worker — the story of Annie’s time with Helen — but also plunges into Annie Sullivan’s past, and in doing so, provides a deeper understanding of the commitment and determination that led to her success.
The portrayals of Annie’s emotional, psychological, and physical struggles with Helen were so vivid that I found myself reading with my brow furrowed in determined solidarity with Annie as she plunked Helen back into her seat at the dining room table for the tenth time. Truly, Annie had to be a spitfire to survive this monumental challenge when she was little more than a girl herself.
The minor characters in this novel sparkle, too. One of my favorite scenes brought Helen together for a lesson with the Kellers’ servant boy Percy. I felt like I was about to burst with pride right along with Annie when Helen began to turn from a student into a teacher, helping Percy with some of the letters. Mr. & Mrs. Keller, too, are painted with a tremendous depth of understanding. It would have been easy to portray Helen’s parents as one-dimensional characters who got in the way of Annie’s work, but instead, Sarah Miller helps us to see their complexity and feel some of their anguish at having a beautiful, broken child.
Early in the book, Annie tells Helen’s mother why her lessons are so vital to Helen.
“Words, Mrs. Keller, words bridge the gap between two minds. Words are a miracle.”
Indeed, they are. And Miss Spitfire will have you believing in that miracle all over again.
Coming soon on my LJ…an interview with the author of Miss Spitfire, Sarah Miller!