There are so many ways to experience the world—watching the flight of a bird—hearing the wings sing—speaking to a friend about what we've seen and heard...all become part of our memories.
But each person participates in the world differently. When a high fever shattered Helen Keller's ability to see and hear, the walls of her world closed in...until she found a new direction.
I've been thinking about Helen's story as a character named Gretchen becomes an important part of my next mystery:
Gretchen is seven years old and has lost her ability to hear or speak. As a result, she focuses all her strength on seeing details and experiencing the environment through touch and smell.
Like Helen, Gretchen makes contact with the world through these heightened senses, and it forms the background of her discoveries and growth as a person.
Image from an antique pop-up book, published as a set of 4 Souvenirs of the Exposition in 1893.
Everyone's senses came alive when they visited the setting of my next story, the World's Columbian Exposition. A place of delight and danger, the 1893 Fair spread over 630 acres with about 65,000 exhibits.
Entering into a fairyland of white, classical buildings and lagoons with floating gondolas, visitors could discover treasures and technological wonders contributed by 46 nations of the world.
One of the most curious and observant of those visitors was Helen Keller, age 13. While there, she used her own unique way of experiencing the world to see "more with her fingers than we do with our eyes."*
Helen was just nineteen months old when her world shrank due to an illness that was never completely diagnosed. Although she'd begun talking before, including asking for water, she lost most of her ability to communicate after her illness.
Everything changed with the arrival of a teacher, Annie M. Sullivan.
At seven years of age, through the perseverance of Miss Sullivan and Helen's natural desire to learn, she went from isolation to finding the "very soul" of the world through her fingers.*
The breakthrough famously came when Miss Sullivan poured cold water from a pump over Helen's fingers and then spelled out "water" into her hand.
Just a few months later, Helen had eagerly added hundreds of words to her vocabulary. Throughout her life, Helen loved words, and she turned those words into poetry as a letter writer and later as an author.
Painting by Theodore Robinson
On a bright, clear summer day, Helen arrived in Chicago for the Fair. Accompanied by Annie M. Sullivan and Helen's dear friend, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Helen spent three weeks soaking up the "Dream City of the West." She received special permission from the Fair's president to handle the priceless objects on display there, feeling by touch their textures and movements.
In her autobiography, Helen wrote of the time, "I took in the glories of the Fair with my fingertips..."**
At the Tiffany's exhibit, she held the enormous Tiffany diamond in her hand, feeling its edges and discerning its brilliance. She learned how it felt to have a Viking ship under her feet, imagining how they "sailed and took storm and calm alike with undaunted heart...and fought with brains and sinews, self-reliant, self-sufficient..."**
Alexander Graham Bell himself explained how a telephone worked as they toured the electrical building. Dr. Bell had proved an understanding friend since Bell's wife, Mabel, had lost her hearing at the age of four.
Over everything else, Helen loved the French bronzes. Miss Sullivan remembered Helen's "eager fingers studying the faces or following the graceful lines of the figures...[she] rarely failed to divine the thoughts which the artists had wrought into their work."*
Helen also commented about the beautiful works of art she encountered "which made us feel, when we touched them, that the artist's soul was in his hand when he created them."*
Japanese Tea Garden, Wooded Island, World's Columbian Exposition
Her life-long love of exploring, learning and meeting people from all over the world found encouragement at every turn as she took in the Fair. She especially enjoyed visiting with the people of Japan, the first country to reserve space at the Exposition.
It was also the first time many visitors had seen the striking architecture used for the Japanese buildings on the Fair's Wooded Island. I was fascinated to learn more about this—the heart of my book's mystery is found on the Wooded Island.
Helen's enduring love for Japan, and the Japanese people's love for her, led her to travel there three times.
As an expression of that esteem, she received the gift of an Akita puppy to take home with her on her first visit to Japan. "Kami" became the first Akita dog in the United States.
She felt a special bond with Kami, and when the puppy died soon after, Helen was heartbroken. Sympathizing, the Japanese government sent her another puppy, Kenzan-Go. This puppy thrived, and Go-Go, as Helen called him, became her cherished companion.
Helen Keller and Go-Go
In all, Helen traveled to 39 countries, only seven less than those represented when she explored the Chicago World's Fair. During much of her travels, she promoted understanding and help for those with disabilities, as well as other far-reaching interests close to her heart.
In 1948, she was appointed America's first Goodwill Ambassador to Japan after WWII.
And always, there were words. As she went on speaking tours, produced twelve books and wrote hundreds of articles, Helen reveled in words. In her autobiography, Helen wrote about those influential 21 days when she was 13:**
Next Up: Discover the story behind the Viking ship Helen explored here→
I loved finding out as I wrote this blog that my characters, Christie and Melina, are the same age as Helen was as they explore the Fair.
For Melina, her discoveries have a life-changing purpose—she has to find how and why her father disappeared at the Exposition. Mystery Fair will be available soon. The first book in the series, Mystery Shores, is available now.
When I'm not writing, I enjoy reading, bird-watching and taking walks in the Pacific Northwest, the setting of Mystery Shores.