I have fallen out of the habit of writing about the books I read, but Kimberly Elkins' What Is Visible is one of the best books I have read in a long while. I wept through it's final chapters, and yet, upon finishing it I find myself already sorry that I had reached the end so soon. A work of historical fiction, What Is Visible tells the story of a number of celebrated figures at the Perkins School for the Blind in the mid-nineteenth century, including Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, but most of all, the remarkable Laura Bridgman, who, at the age of two, lost her senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Although she relied almost completely on her sense of touch to perceive the world, Laura would learn English, and could read, so long as the print was raised so that she could feel the shape of the letters, could write, and conversed with others using a manual alphabet in which the two conversationalists would write or sign letters into each other's hands.
A world without sight, sound, smell or taste is difficult for most of us to imagine, but, as this book shows, none of these senses are essential, and it serves us well to spend some time imagining a life without them. Each chapter of the novel is written from the perspective of a different character. Most are written from Laura's perspective, but many are written from the perspective of Julia Ward Howe, the suffragist and poet, or from that of Laura's teachers, including her most famous teacher, the abolitionist, educator, and phrenology devotee, Samuel Gridley Howe (who was also Julia's husband). Elkins writes a compelling and moving portrait of each of these characters, and the story they tell together is both Laura's story and a fascinating glimpse at a small portion of 19th century America life. The stories told here are full of hardship and melancholy, but also of hope and perseverance and occasionally even joy. They are the stories of remarkable people with remarkable ideas, and of how they did, and did not get along.
I loved this story and the way it was told, and I can say with confidence that this is a book I will want to reread. I don't feel that way often.