Background: I've been meaning to read Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller for ages. This book is December's pick of the month from Readergirlz (and yes, since I'm a readergirlz postergirl, that means I should have read it months ago). It was also nominated for this year's Cybils award in middle grade fiction, and there are lots of great reviews floating around. Not to mention the fact that although I haven't met her in person, I love Sarah Miller's blog, and will be working with her in January as fellow Cybils Young Adult Fiction committee judges. I can't really say why Miss Spitfire didn't make the top of my to-read list before now (apart from the sheer quantity of other books). But I can tell you that once I started it the other night, I read it within 12 hours.
Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller is a thoroughly researched, fictionalized account of Annie Sullivan's earliest days teaching Helen Keller in 1887. Told in the first person, the story begins as 20-year-old Annie takes a series of trains from her school in Massachusetts to her first-ever job at the Keller's home in Alabama. Annie herself was blind until an operation gave her limited sight. This gives her some insight into the world of blind, deaf, six-year-old Helen. But Annie's true qualifications for dealing with the troubled Helen turn out to be her obstinacy and her temper, which together have already earned her the nickname Miss Spitfire. Annie quickly realizes that her first task must be to exact obedience from Helen, before she can move on to her true goal of teaching Helen about the miracle of words.
I was surprised by many things in this book. By how much Helen Keller was already able to communicate about her needs, even before she learned the concept of words. By how dreadful a childhood Annie Sullivan suffered. By the fact that Helen's father fought for the South in the Civil War, and had owned slaves. But what struck me the most about the book was the fact that Annie needed Helen just as much as Helen needed Annie (though for different reasons). My vague impression of the story was of a determined, but essentially put together teacher seeking to reach a damaged, half-wild child. But the truth, as conveyed by Sarah Miller, is that Annie was herself quite damaged also, and craving of love and affection from a child. For example, after an incident in which Helen rebuffs her, Annie notes:
"Watching her fondle the mimosa and azalea blossoms or press her face into the wide leaves of the ivy should bring me some comfort. Instead I feel as if something in the center of me has sunk like a weight, closing my throat and pulling the corners of my mouth down with it. How can she be so tender with the plants and leave me to wilt?" (Page 143)
In another incident, she mourns her lost younger brother, and cradles a doll instead of the wary Helen, thinking:
"Closing my eyes, I try to imagine away the doll's brittle hands and face, her slight cotton body. I dream of her as a child, my child--perfect in body and mind as Helen is not, and I never was. A child I could nourish, love, and teach with nothing but my own heart and hands.
A child who loves me back." (Page 185)
Of course Annie is not all longing. She has moments of unbridled joy, and a deep-seated stubbornness. In one of my favorite passages, she describes what it was like for her, after being blind for most of her childhood, to be able to see:
"I could see the Charles River, the windows in the school buildings along its shore, even count the very bricks in their walls. When I threaded a needle without using my tongue, I nearly melted with joy. Best of all, I could make out words on a page. Dizzy with independence, I snatched up every bit of writing I could find" (Page 99)
The Helen Keller/Annie Sullivan story captures people's attention all by itself. Annie and Helen are household names. Their story if a triumph of the mind over the limitations of the body, and is the ultimate example of a teacher opening up the world for a student. For that reason alone, this book about the pivotal early days of Annie and Helen's relationship is worth reading.
But Miss Spitfire offers much more than just the basic story. Sarah Miller has clearly immersed herself in her research, and cares about the characters. She shares, with an immediacy strengthened by the first person narration, details of Annie's character. Seeing Annie's vulnerabilities makes her eventual triumph that much sweeter. The book is also chock full of historical detail. Although the detail is kept to the background, Miss Spitfire provides a clear picture of life in the South in the late 19th century. As a small example, the family's kitchen is in a separate outbuilding behind the house, as I believe was common at the time because of the danger of fire. The family's complex relationship with their black servants is also lightly, but realistically, portrayed.
Sarah Miller's writing is clear and melodic, with just a hint of old-fashioned language, mostly in the dialog. Miss Spitfire should be quite accessible to middle graders, though I wouldn't put any upper age limit on it. An afterword briefly recounts the remainder of Annie and Helen's lives, for those wondering "what happened next". There are also photos, a chronology, and references. This end matter provides excellent teaching material, both about Keller and Sullivan, and about how to write quality historical fiction in general.
Miss Spitfire is the ideal book to offer kids who enjoyed Hattie Big Sky, and are looking for more historical fiction. It's also a book for anyone who loves words, because it brings a fresh appreciation for the power of language to open up the world. Highly recommended for all ages.
Publication Date: July 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher. Miss Spitfire is the readergirlz featured title of the month for December, and is on the nominated titles list for the 2007 Cybils award for Middle Grade Fiction.
Other Blog Reviews: Book Nut, Pinot and Prose, My Breakfast Platter, Emily Reads (a review Haiku), Bildungsroman, In the Pages, Ms. Yingling Reads, Kate's Book Blog, Semicolon, Interactive Reader, Fuse #8, Deliciously Clean Reads, and doubtless others
Interviews: Becky's Book Reviews, Deaf Characters in Adolescent Literature
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.