What is it about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that is so fascinating to children, especially, but also to many adults? I remember being intrigued with the idea of a girl who could neither hear nor see, who was completely cut off from communication with even the members of her own family. I suppose the whole area of communication and perception is compelling since so much of what it means to be human is bound up in the ability to communicate and to make connections with other people. (It’s the same reason that I’m always interested in reading about the lives and experiences of those who are caught in the world of autism.)
Miss Spitfire is the fictionalized story of how Annie Sullivan taught Helen Keller to communicate, to understand words through finger-spelling and then to understand meaning. Annie, whose background with an alcoholic father and a tubercular brother has made her stubborn and resilient if nothing else, needs all her strength and tenacity to teach Helen, a child who has been indulged and babied and taught nothing. When Annie comes to teach her, Helen doesn’t even understand that there is a world of words and ideas to which she has been denied access. The story moves slowly, as Helen’s awakening came slowly, but inexorably toward the climactic scene where Helen finally understands that the motions of her teacher’s fingers in her hand have meaning, that she can ask questions and give answers and relate to others through the magic of words.
The book is based on primary documents, Annie Sullivan’s letters, Helen’s autobiography, a biography of Annie Sulllivan written by a friend three years before her death. Although the author, Sarah Miller, has added thoughts and feelings to the story that are not recorded, the book remains true to the factual events and to the personalities of the two protagonists. Annie Sullivan was a spitfire, and her pupil was a spoiled and wild hellion of a child. The methods that Annie Sullivan used to reach Helen Keller and give her the gift of communication were not exactly violent, but would never be countenanced nowadays. Miss Sullivan’s goal for Helen was first obedience so that she could then begin to learn, and since teacher and student could not communicate through words or even pictures, the only way to make Helen obedient was to physically force her to behave. As I said, Miss Sullivan’s methods wouldn’t go over too well in our love-means-permissiveness culture.
I think kids might be disturbed by how angry and passionate Annie Sullivan became with her pupil, Helen Keller, but they might also learn that anger can sometimes be channeled and controlled and its energy used to bring about change. The book uses a rich vocabulary, and it isn’t written with slow readers in mind. But for those children, girls especially, who become enthralled with the story of Helen Keller and want to read all there is to read about her, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller is a fine choice.