Chances are that you’ve never heard of a woman named Laura Bridgman, even though she was world-renowned in the mid 1800s. Laura was locally popular for years before rocketing to international stardom when Charles Dickens dedicated an entire chapter to her in his 1842 travel log, American Notes. She was so famous that she had Laura Dolls made in her likeness, and she sold her crocheted doilies to the throngs of people that came to visit her on a weekly basis. What made Laura so special? Despite being deaf and blind, as well as lacking the sense of taste or smell, Laura learned how to read and write and “talk” with others through finger spelling. At a time when disabled people were seen as little more than burdens on their families, Laura proved that the deaf/blind can lead rich, full lives with proper instruction that takes their special circumstances into account. Laura’s extraordinary aptitude for learning despite her disabilities paved the way for the Helen Keller, who received instruction only because Laura Bridgman first proved it could be done.
Author Kimberly Elkins brings Laura Bridgman, as well as several other historical figures, back to life in this beautifully complex and meticulously researched novel. Elkins spent two years combing through mountains of letters, articles, and journal entries in order to paint the “realest Laura Bridgman.”
Although unable to see, hear, taste, or smell, little Laura Bridgman regardless lives a happy life in the company of her teacher, Samuel Gridley Howe, who treats her like a daughter. Laura’s comfortable life is disrupted, however, when Howe marries Julia Ward, a distinguished poet and abhorred all things “abnormal and defective”. As Laura grows older, she also grows further apart from her old teacher as she begins to realize that she is little more than a pawn in Howe’s effort to further the “science” of phrenology as well as prove his Unitarian beliefs.
If you like historical fiction, I highly recommend this book. The plot is told not only from Laura’s point of view, but also from the point of view of Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, both of whom were prominent historical figures of Civil War-era America.