HELEN KELLER IN LOVE
Helen Keller’s life of tragedy and triumph made her an American legend. Her incredible story of how she first learned to communicate has been told in films such as The Miracle Worker and in her autobiography, The Story of My Life. Although Helen Keller exists as an icon, she was also a woman, with the same desires and needs as any other. This is the side of Helen Keller that isn’t included in films, history books, or even her own writing; this is the side that is imagined in Rosie Sultan’s debut novel, Helen Keller in Love.
Helen Keller’s life of tragedy and triumph made her an American legend. Her incredible story of how she first learned to communicate has been told in films such as The Miracle Worker and in her autobiography, The Story of My Life. Although Helen Keller exists as an icon, she was also a woman, with the same desires and needs as any other. This is the side of Helen Keller that isn’t included in films, history books, or even her own writing; this is the side that is imagined in Rosie Sultan’s debut novel, Helen Keller in Love. Witty, insightful, and poetic, Sultan’s book is based on the true story of a forbidden romance between one of America’s most beloved figures and the impetuous young man who stole her heart.
In her thirties, with mounting debt, and fearful of losing her longtime teacher and companion Annie Sullivan to tuberculosis, Helen Keller is a woman with great responsibilities, both public and private. She has met with presidents and celebrities, raised money for charitable causes, and been an inspiration to millions, yet part of Helen is unfulfilled. Using intimate, first–person narration, Sultan allows Helen to confide in the reader her yearning for love, marriage, and even children—feelings she keeps hidden from family and friends. When aspiring journalist Peter Fagan arrives to serve as Helen’s personal secretary, the chemistry is palpable, and Sultan’s dialogue imagines their witty, flirtatious banter perfectly, capturing the joy of new love. As Helen and Peter plan to elope, her mother and Annie pressure her to abandon the relationship and her chance at a life she never thought possible. Caught between her passionate desires, her family obligations, and her commitment to her causes, Helen finds herself pushed to the breaking point; to satisfy one part of her life, she must deny the others.
Sultan demonstrates the complexities of human relationships—the tensions and affection between lovers, friends, and family—and her portrait of Helen and Peter’s romance is warm and sympathetic. Her novel imagines a love affair that could have changed history. The nuanced depiction of Helen’s deepest hopes and struggles is sure to resonate with readers. Filled with rich, lyrical prose, Helen Keller in Love presents Helen not as a woman whose disabilities deprive her of sensations but as a woman whose inner life is a riot of sensual experience, sexual desire, and love.
- Viking Adult
- April 2012
- 256 Pages
“With empathy, imagination, and vivid sensory detail, Rosie Sultan’s Helen Keller in Love gives voice—and scent and touch—to an iconic American heroine during a little known chapter in her life.”—Jane Mendelsohn, author of I Was Amelia Earhart
“In this richly imagined and moving novel, Rosie Sultan brings alive the history of Helen Keller—the brilliant miraculous creature who stole the heart and sympathy of the world—while also exploring how she must have felt as a woman: the loneliness, longing,and great vulnerability. The result is a vivid, sensuous portrait full of sound and vision.”—Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes
“Helen Keller in Love is involving, passionate, and deeply felt. It tells this little-known, remarkable story with a loving heart, beautiful language, and great commitment to its heroine. Helen Keller was a woman with blood in her veins—this book makes you feel it.”—Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt
What did you know about Helen Keller before you read this novel? Did the character in the novel match your expectations? Explain.
Were you startled by the sexual nature of Helen’s relationship with Peter? Did this challenge any assumptions you had about Helen, or about people with disabilities in general?
Helen describes her mother as living in “a shadow of grief that she couldn’t save me” from the illness that took her sight and hearing and that she is haunted by the “intolerable, blurred image of what I could have been” (p. 74). Imagine yourself in Helen’s mother’s place. Describe your feelings about Helen’s life and her relationship with Peter.
Why does Annie object to Helen and Peter’s romance? Do you agree with her opinion? What other reasons might she have had for not wanting Helen and Peter to be together?
Have you ever had a romantic affair, friendship, or relationship that others in your life disapproved of? Did their disapproval affect your actions?
On page 43, Helen says, “Annie needed me to stay childlike.” What does she mean by this? Is it true?
Helen’s descriptions of sounds, feelings, and scents are striking in their beauty and imagery. Choose one of your favorite examples in the book and explain why you find it so moving.
When considering Peter’s feelings for her, Helen asks, “Was he attracted to the idea of me? I had the strange sensation the answer was yes” (p. 71). What does she mean by “the idea” of her?
Imagine your own life without sound or sight. What would the biggest challenges be? How would you overcome them?
Why does Helen and Peter’s relationship end the way that it does? Are there any clues to this earlier in the book?
Does Peter really love Helen? Did Helen have a realistic expectation of what a relationship is?
Would Helen’s life have been better or worse if she and Peter had married?