Sunday, July 13, 2008


Helen Keller was kind of a monumental figure during my younger school years. I wonder if it was because she was the only historical figure I remember learning about who was female? Regardless, that moment when Annie Sullivan makes that connection over the water pump with her deaf/blind pupil, Helen Keller, is powerful enough that I have no difficulty recalling it. In Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller author Sarah Miller re-enacts the days leading up to that moment.

Told from Annie's point-of-view, the book starts with 21-year-old Annie's arrival at the Keller household in Alabama in 1887. Appalled at first by Helen's rule over an indulgent household and finding her charge difficult to like, Annie is slowly won over by the obviously bright girl, and -- in just about a month -- they have that breakthrough at the pump. I enjoyed the way Miller made you see Helen through Annie's eyes; and that Annie was lonely, exhausted, and often not very pleasant. There are no heroic, unflawed people in this story.

It's read by Terry Donnelly, who narrates with a pleasant Irish lilt as Annie. She's chosen to read the story quite slowly, with a deliberate, measured pace. Donnelly's also required to read as a number of Southerners, black and white; and very occasionally as Helen. Her wealthy Southerners have the right sound of affected Englishness; she's a little weaker portraying the African-American servants of the household. I admired her narrative choices for Helen -- not afraid to grunt and use impaired speech. She even had cause to sing an Irish tune or two in the course of the novel.

However, I didn't really enjoy this. Is it that I knew the "end?" And that everything that took place before the end (the bulk of the novel) seemed to blend into one long episode of Annie battling Helen, of Annie finger-signing words into Helen's palm, of Annie experiencing loneliness and self-doubt. Donnelly's choice to read the story so slowly exacerbated this sensation. It seemed almost as if she were taking a full second between each sentence. Come on, already ... get to the water pump! I was bored. And then, when you get to the pump, it's over.

The book includes an afterword that is inexplicably left out of the audiobook. I know this because I had the book in my hands on Friday, looking at the pictures that accompany it. If I'd known I wasn't going to get it in the audio version, I would have read it! I listened to this on cassette tape and there was plenty of room at the end of the last tape to include it.

Sometimes I just don't get publishers ...

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