What Is Visible
Imagine being deprived of sight and hearing at the age of two. Your mother’s voice and the color of the sky become but a distant memory, and communication with the world around you is nigh impossible. Nowadays, educators and medical personnel would rush to reach such a child, but it was 1831 when Laura Bridgman was stripped of every sense but touch.
Many such persons were reduced to a feral state and abandoned, but Laura’s life is transformed when Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe accepts her at Boston’s Perkins Institution for the Blind. Though Laura was not able to speak like Helen Keller, fifty years her junior, she learns Braille, communicates with sign language, and does arithmetic on a special board. By the time she is thirteen, Laura is a national celebrity, and Dr. Howe’s special protégé. Then her sense of privilege is dashed, for Dr. Howe takes a wife. Julia Ward Howe, who will soon compose the Battle Hymn of the Republic, becomes the center of Laura’s beloved Doctor’s life.
Kimberly Elkins, in her richly imagined novel, What Is Visible, sets before readers Laura’s pride in her accomplishments. Though Laura is dependent on her instructors, she is fiercely determined to experience every sensation she can in life, including forbidden lesbian love. Elkins also spends quite a bit of her book exploring the lives and loves of Dr. Howe and his wife Julia; marital and illicit, visible and invisible. The Howes are an intriguing couple, but it is Laura’s inner life which fascinates in What Is Visible.