Manitoba·BOOK REVIEW

Losing touch with What is Visible, waging war in Hild

What is the worst punishment you could inflict on a person whose only window to the world is touch?

What is the worst punishment you could inflict on a person whose only window to the world is touch?

Laura Bridgman could not see, hear, speak, taste or smell, so her teachers used gloves to control her. When they tugged those thick, coarse gloves over her hands, Laura lost all contact with the world. She was trapped entirely in her own inner universe.

Stop and really think about what that would be like to not just lose those senses now, as an adult, but to grow up in that world. Your entire understanding of the world and your relationship to it is through your fingertips. And remember, Laura Bridgman lived before computers could open up her world.

At one point in What is Visible, Kimberly Elkins' fictionalized version of Laura's life, a young visitor earnestly asks her why she hasn't killed herself.

"I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn't think of a single answer to that question.… Why indeed?… I have kept the memory of those words scalded in my palm until they have burnt through the flesh, into my heart, where they will reside forever."

Elkins transcends the biography to examine bigger questions of freedom and humanity.

'Possessing full humanity'

Before the Civil War, Laura Bridgman was one of the most famous women in the world.  She was the first deaf-blind person to read and write.  Elkins captures Laura's intelligence, wit and curiosity – and her fear, pettiness, and temper.  Laura wanted to show the world "how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity."

Which takes us back to the gloves. They were essentially used, justifiably or not, as punishment, but on a deeper level they reduced Laura to a non-human. And that thread is part of the bigger weave of this book.

Elkins teases out the ways those in authority — the teachers, the husbands, the slave owners, the wealthy, the able-bodied — try to control and limit the humanity in those "beneath" them. The beauty in the book is how that humanity, ultimately, can't be destroyed.

Hild

Nicola Griffith takes on an even bigger challenge with another incredible real-life woman in her book, Hild.

Hild is the fictionalized early life of St. Hilda of Whitby, who lived in 17th century Britain. Griffith had only bare bone facts about the girl who would grow up to play a pivotal role in the conversion of her country to Christianity.

But much like What is Visible, Griffith's book isn't just a biography. First of all, she has done painstaking world building. History buffs will lose themselves in the minute details of everyday life, from the kitchen to the battlefield.  

There is a glossary to help you navigate the frequent use of Old Irish, Ancient British, Latin and Old English, such as in this paragraph:

"Two days later, sitting in the meddaeg sun in the ruins of Broac, Brocavum that was, Cian was still lost in the tales of Yr Hen Ogledd, this time of Ceneu and Gorbanian, the sons of Coel Hen, as told by Uinniau, Rhoedds' younger sister-son, who had ridden with them to the remains of the fort."

Phewww.  Say THAT 10 times fast.

Warring families

This is a book of intrigue and strategy as warring families and clans plot, scheme and wage bloody war. But at the centre is a little girl, raised as a "seer," who advises kings on battle plans and political moves. She is observing, and absorbing, a world of profound change.

Griffith has filled in the holes in Hild's story with extensive research, thought-provoking insight, and poetic descriptions of a world we can only imagine.  Just a few lines after the above-quoted paragraph, Hild is contemplating the beads on her bracelet, a politically-inspired gift from an infant princess:

"In the light of the peat fires and wall torches of the hall, some had gleamed like the jewels of her mother's dream, garnets in milk; others were more like pearls in blood, or amber in wine. But in the sun, they burnt like a living legend, something forged by a god from a dragon's heart."

That language will either defeat you or absorb and enchant you. 

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