Monday, March 14, 2016

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Seventeen year old Elizabeth Stone, Izzy, knows that in less than a year, she will be aged out of the foster care system and on her own. In 1995 she finds herself on the grounds of the now shuttered Willard State Asylum. Peg, her new foster mother, with whom she has gotten along well, has asked her to come to the old asylum to help safeguard anything that might be worth keeping before the old buildings are condemned.  Izzy’s own mother, Joyce, is locked up in a psychiatric center for having killed Izzy’s father, shot him in the head while sleeping, and this visit to Willard brings back memories of visiting her own mother before finally begging her grandmother not to take her back there again. Izzy lives in constant fear that she will somehow inherit her mother’s psychosis.

Izzy’s story is one half of this 2014 novel by Ellen Marie Wiseman, What She Left Behind. The other half is that of Clara Elizabeth Cartwright who in 1925 is eighteen years old when she is sent to an expensive and exclusive home for nervous invalids, because she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her, and threatens instead to run off with her Italian immigrant boyfriend.  Later, when her father’s fortunes turn for the worse in the depression, and he will no longer pay her fees for the expensive institution, she is sent instead to the state asylum. The story-line of the novel switches back and forth between Izzy and Clara, although the primary emphasis is on Clara and her attempts to escape her imprisonment in the asylum.

Although Wiseman makes it very clear that this is a novel, it relies heavily on the research Wiseman did including Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Walls 1840—1945, and The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital, by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny.

This is a chilling tale to say the least. While Izzy struggles with yet another new beginning in foster care, her work at the asylum with her foster mother draws her more and more into the past and the treatment of patients, especially women, who lived and died in mental institutions. And it also causes her to rethink her own mother’s institutionalization and the events that led up to it.
Izzy wondered what horrors the hulking building had witnessed. What dreadful memories had attached themselves to the bricks and mortar and clouded glass forever part of the structure, mortared and sealed with blood and tears? Just as pain and anguish would always be part of who she was, the memories of thousands of tortured souls would live on in Chapin hall and the surrounding buildings of Willard State. How could this place ever be anything but a reminder of lives and loved ones lost?
Izzy comes to discover that nearly half of the fifty thousand patients at Willard died there. There are many times in the novel when I became angry with the author as she time and again holds out a hope to the reader that Clara will finally be able to convince one of the doctors that she is not sick, does not belong at Willard, only to dash that hope, and then raises the hope that perhaps her loving and dedicated boyfriend will find her and help her escape back into the world.

Clara discovers one woman at Willard who had been committed by her husband when he caught her kissing another man.

Clara remains rebellious, continues to insist to the doctors that she is not crazy, does not see visions or hear voices, and that they must release her. Instead her denials get her labeled as delusional and resistant to treatment, finally leading her to solitary confinement in the Rookie Pest House. That confinement serves to convince Clara of just how dangerous it is to resist or struggle. When she is released back into the general population, grateful not to be chained to a bed twenty-four hours a day, she becomes much more circumspect in her attempts to escape.

Izzy, who is relatively happy in her new foster relationship with Peg, stops cutting herself, and finds new ways  to deal with the bullying that occurs at her school. The asides on bullying by ‘mean girls’ is an intriguing story on its own, as is the slow unraveling of the story of just how her mother came to shoot her own husband as he slept. Izzy has always accepted the claim that her mother is simply insane, and she worries that her own cutting and acting out are early signs that she, too, will slip into insanity. I will leave this little side mystery to the reader to discover, since clearly it is Clara’s story that Wiseman most wants to tell.

In an afterward, when the author is asked what inspired her novel and how researching asylums made her feel, she replies:
It was difficult reading about people in the past being institutionalized, in many cases for the rest of their lives, because of emotional or economic distress. While some patients were truly ill, many were sent to asylums under circumstances we view differently today; poverty, homelessness, depression, homosexuality, alcoholism, and emotional distress due to divorce, family disputes, abusive relationships, and the loss of children. A person could be committed for something as simple as being unable to find work. 
Women were especially vulnerable to being institutionalized for the long term. Husbands could commit their “troublesome” wives, while male doctors were more than willing to oblige. Many women also worked as domestics and were in close contact with their employers; any bad behavior or dispute could be contrived as mental illness. By the end of its first year of operation, Willard housed four times as many women as men. In one case, a woman sent to Willard because of depression spent the remaining seventy-five years of her life there, until she died at the age of one hundred and one. Immigrants with few community connections were sometimes sent to asylums while their families in the old country had no idea where they were. Many “mad” patients were sent to public asylums from other state hospitals, arriving in groups of a hundred or more, crammed into trains and buses, unaware of where they were being taken. Nearly half of the 54,000 individuals who entered Willard died there.
Like many of the real life patients of Willard, Clara was submitted to forced sterilization, “a common practice in state mental hospitals from about 1910 to the end of WWII, when it was largely stopped because of embarrassing comparisons to Nazi policies.

Quite apart from the social significance of this novel, the stories of Izzy and Clara are interesting and well told in themselves, although for this reader it will be the social commentary that sticks with me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

They said the typewriter would unsex us. 
One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter…is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. 
So begins the humorous and entrancing debut novel by Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist.  Set in New York in the middle of the 1920s, the book has a nice mixture of mystery, feminism and social commentary.

Rose Baker is a typist for the New York City Police Dept. Her job is to type up the confessions of those who have been arrested. Quite the proper (even prudish) young woman outside of her job, her detective boss worries about the coarsening effect of listening to those confessions.
And I am largely indifferent to the content of the confessions I must take down and transcribe. Like the typewriter itself, I am simply there to report with accuracy. I am there to make the official and unbiased record that will eventually by used in court. I am there to transcribe what will eventually come to be known as the truth.
All goes well for the young Rose until another typist is hired, and the new typist, the other typist, is a young woman of a very different sort. She dresses in fine and provocative clothes, lives not in a modest boardinghouse like Rose, but in a rather fancy hotel. Rose wonders how Odalie, the other typist, can afford such a lush lifestyle on the meager income of a typist. At first, she accepts Odalie’s muttered explanation of a rich father, or some behind the scenes benefactor, but once she accepts Odalie’s invitation to live with her and is introduced by Odalie to the world of jazz and bootleg liquor in illegal speakeasies, she slowly comes to the realization that Odalie, herself, owns all or part of one of these clubs, and the source of her income is that underworld scene. She also comes to question more and more the whole notion of truth and truthfulness.

Like so many mysteries these days, commentators suggest that if you liked Gone Girl  and its complex intrigue, then you will probably like The Other Typist. In fact, this is a much better novel and one that this reader, at least, thinks is far more subtle and psychologically interesting than Gone Girl. And I very much appreciated the feminist themes that crop up in the novel, and provide much of both the humor and the intrigue.

Although Rose soon comes to enjoy the jazz and bootleg liquor Odalie introduces her to, she does not so easily adopt Odalie’s unconventional, even scandalous, sexual behavior.
She [Odalie] acted as though it were the most natural thing for a woman to do whatever she wanted, with whomever she pleased. This confused me.  
You see, I didn’t know then what I know now, which is this: Only the very rich and the very poor enjoy sex with a careless, indifferent abandon. Those of us who find ourselves in the middle…--only those of us in the middle class are obliged to maintain an attitude of modesty and discretion when it comes to sex. This is especially true of middle-class young ladies. We are the ones obliged to lower our eyes and blush during educational lectures on human anatomy; we are the ones who must tsk and shout fresh! with indignation whenever a young man tries to proposition us. We are given to believe we are the supreme keepers of sexual morality, and I, like any properly instructed schoolgirl of my day, earnestly felt there was something sacred in the keeping. Some keep it as a matter of burden, but I kept it as a matter of privilege.
Slowly, Rose is sucked into Odalie’s life, even to the point of risking her employment by lying for her on the job, and falsifying some typed records that would implicate Odalie in illegal activities.

Although Rindell manages to keep a light tone throughout this debut novel, the mystery that slowly unravels is an intriguing one, and the friendship (or is it more like a love-affair?) that she has with Odalie is psychologically intriguing.

I think this is a first-rate little novel, sometimes dark, but always humorous and clever. It may seem lightweight in comparison with some of the excellent books I’ve reviewed lately, but I think it is well worth reading. If you start it, you will have a difficult time putting it down.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

A trove of paintings is discovered, apparently the work of an unschooled southern woman, Missus LuAnne Bell. An astounding discovery in itself, but even more astounding to discover that the work was not done by Bell (or not only by her), but instead by a slave house girl, Josephine, a teenager with no art training, taught to read and write by her Missus, in secret and hidden from  Mister Bell the owner of the farm and of Josephine. This is the bare bones of the 2013 debut novel of Tara Conklin.

Actually the story goes back and forth between the 1850s and the early 2000s. Lisa Sparrow is an ambitious young attorney in a big New York firm who divides her life into billable hours,  (1.6 hours on the phone with a client, .5 hours for lunch) and taking care   of her artist father and his crumbling brownstone.

While Josephine takes care of her frail Missus, ministering to her quickly failing body, she also takes up the brush to smooth and correct the rather crude brushstrokes of her would-be artist Missus, her inner life is consumed by one thought—just how and when she will run. The penalties for even an attempt at escape are severe. One slave on the farm who tried more than once to run has had his heels cut so deeply that he can barely walk, and young girls who are apprehended by the roving groups of men who patrol the roads looking for runaways are often enough dealt with immediately and permanently. And still, Josephine can think only of running. Run, run, run.

Lisa is surprised that her rich, corporate firm even takes on the slave reparations case that she is assigned to, but understands that a rich and powerful client of the firm is behind the decision. And while Lisa searches for a lead witness, a modern-day descendent to serve as the face of the reparations case, she also attempts to unravel the mystery of her own mother’s disappearance from her life when she is still a young child. Her father has always said Lisa’s mother was killed in a car-wreck, but he provides almost no details and is always elusive when questioned by Lisa. Yet another mystery thread in this complex and richly peopled novel.

What makes this novel so interesting and worthwhile besides the very cleverly told story is the immense research Conklin did of the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad that helped so many slaves escape to the north. One young woman, about the same age as Josephine and Lisa, begins to help her father in his attempts to help slaves escape. In letters to her sister, Dorthea (Dot) outlines just how her father plays his part in the desperate escapes.
It is quite amazing, Kate, the method that father employs…Father hides the runaways inside the casket shipments he sends to northern buyers. The journey is three days, first by wagon & then by train, & there is a man who meets them at the station in Philadelphia & brings the delivery to a place of safety where the caskets are unloaded & the Negroes returned to the world.
The reader is taken back and forth between the lives of these three women, Josephine, Lisa, and Dorthea.

Despite Josephine’s constant preoccupation with running, she is torn between a stubborn loyalty to her frail, and in fact dying, Missus and her thirst for freedom.
Josephine lowered her hand. It was Missus’ face, stricken even in sleep, sallow even by lamplight, the scabbed gash like a bristling insect on her cheek, that stopped Josephine. Her face was no longer young or beautiful, her wasted face. And it seemed Josephine’s heart pulsed with the skittering movements of Missus’ eyes, that the two of them lay prostrate together before the same cruel God. The two of them not so different after all, Josephine realized. All this time, these long, hungry years, each of them alone beside the other…After she was gone, who would care for Missus Lu? Who would hold her down when she shook, comb her hair, fetch what she needed, see what she ate? Mister would never do such things. He had no money for another house girl. 
There are many side stories and mysteries in this fine novel, as Lisa uncovers the real story of her mother’s disappearance, and as a lead witness/victim is chosen to represent the reparations case. But I will not divulge the mysteries nor their solutions. Tara Conklin was a litigator for a corporate law firm, but fortunately for us readers, she now devotes all of her time to writing fiction. She is a gifted story-teller and a diligent researcher who has produced an excellent historical novel.