Most adults are so familiar with the Helen Keller story that we forget how difficult it is to tell. How can readers who rely on their senses of sight and hearing imagine being bereft of both from the age of 19 months, and without language until the age of 7?
Joseph Lambert of White River Junction finds an elegant solution to this problem in his graphic biography Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, published under the auspices of his alma mater, the Center for Cartoon Studies. The book’s first three pages offer a visual representation of young Helen’s baffling world: pitch-black panels interrupted by ghostlike blue figures. Disembodied arms force a tool into the central figure’s hands. There are no words, only body parts interacting, limned with energy as if by an infrared viewer. Only on the fourth page does Lambert plunge us back into the realm of colors, details, words.
As the title indicates, Lambert’s book is intended to introduce young readers to both Keller’s story and that of her taskmaster and lifelong mentor, Annie Sullivan. The author-artist interweaves these tales with surprising narrative complexity. As Sullivan struggles to break through to Helen — a process chronicled in excerpts from her real-life letters — we see flashbacks to her own childhood, which was turbulent and Dickensian. (A poorhouse, rats and a dead brother figure prominently.)
Sullivan emerges from the pages as a complex heroine, brave but also dangerously stubborn (and at times, in her eagerness to yank Helen out of darkness, downright ruthless). We learn how, as Keller became famous, Sullivan and other parties struggled to take credit, a process that culminated in Keller’s “trial” for plagiarism.
This is the kind of embarrassing episode that kids’ bios of famous people often omit. Yet Lambert clearly isn’t aiming to knock Keller and Sullivan off their pedestals — just to humanize them. He immerses us in Helen’s world, where human touch is all, to show us that the flawed woman who brought her pupil the gift of language also — just as importantly — brought her the wordless gift of friendship.
"Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller" by Joseph Lambert, Disney Hyperion Books, 96 pages. $17.99.