This week is Short Nonfiction Week and our ‘buddy read’ is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller.
Helen Keller was an American educator, advocate for the blind and deaf and co-founder of the ACLU. Stricken by an illness at the age of 2, Keller was left blind and deaf, however she overcame her disabilities and all the challenges they brought to attend University, become a published author and to achieve world-wide success and recognition.
The Story of My Life was first published in 1903 and is Helen Keller’s autobiography detailing her early years and education, in particular her relationship with her seminal teacher, Miss Sullivan. Beginning in 1887, Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her make tremendous progress with her ability to communicate, to read and to comprehend the world around her and Keller went on to college, graduating in 1904.
The Story of My Life is a fascinating and quite humbling book. It’s incredibly hard to imagine the isolation and confusion that the young Helen must have experienced and she details her outbursts of frustration and anger – including locking her own mother in a store cupboard for three hours – with a measured self-awareness. The arrival of her teacher opens up a new world to Keller and she details her initial grasp of basic words (spelled into her hand by Miss Sullivan using a manual alphabet) and her progress on to ideas and more abstract notions and emotions. The moment that she understands what ‘think’ and what ‘love’ means is a moving and important one for Keller and for the reader.
“You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.” (she said).
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind ― I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirit of others.
Her descriptions of the natural world are stirring and detailed which is probably not surprising given that taste, smell and touch were the sense through which she understood the world and it was interesting to read about her love for water sports and outdoor activities, which must have given her an incredible sense of being alive. She claims in her book to have gained as much knowledge from nature as she did from the books (written in Braille) that she read constantly.
I thought it great fun to sit on a big rock in my bathing-suit and feel wave after wave dash against the rock, sending up a shower of spray which quite covered me. I felt the pebbles rattling as the waves threw theor ponderous weight against the shore; the whole beach seemed racked by their terrific onset, and the air throbbed with their pulsations. The breakers would swoop back to gather themselves for a mightier leap, and I clung to the rock, tense, fascinated, as I felt the dash and roar of the rushing sea.
This short book is filled with these beautiful descriptions and I was often taken aback by them, having to remind myself that this experience was being described by someone who can neither see, nor hear.
At the age of ten, Keller learned to speak and this paved the way for her to continue her education at University, eventually attending Radcliffe to study English, History and Languages. It was a struggle to get there and her struggles didn’t end once she got a place. She still needed to have lectures manually signed into her hand and many of her required text books weren’t available in Braille. Keller was, however, determined to keep up and prove her worth among her peers.
My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.
This dogged determination is incredibly admirable and speaks to the strength of character that Keller had. I was also impressed by the fact that she was not averse to exploring her faults, including most notably, an intentioned instance of plagiarism which must have been difficult for her to revisit. She seems however to be sustained by her faith and her quest for knowledge and I found her story to be a galvanising one. The description of her relationship with the incomparable Miss Sullivan, a woman just as remarkable as Keller, is movingly rendered.
At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them. When she came, everything about me breathed of love and joy and was full of meaning. She has never since let pass an opportunity to point out the beauty that is in everything, nor has she ceased trying in thought and action and example to make my life sweet and useful.
Rebecca has written a much more in-depth review here and there is still time to take part in this week’s buddy read if you are interested as The Story of My Life is available to read for free from Project Gutenberg.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!