Book Review: Guests on Earth

October 17, 2013 1930's to 1940's. Highland Hospital, 5 stars, Algonquin, Ashville NC, book review, mental health, Mental Hospitals, Zelda Fitzgerald 3

Written By:  Lee Smith

Published By:  Shannon Ravenel Books an imprint of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill October 15, 2013

Length:  352 pages

Source: E galley via Net Galley from publisher

Description“The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Evalina Toussaint, orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just thirteen when she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The year is 1936, and the mental hospital is under the direction of the celebrated psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll, whose innovative treatment for nervous disorders and addictions is based upon fresh air, diet, exercise, gardening, art, dance, music, theater, and therapies of the day such as rest cures, freeze wraps, and insulin shock. Talented Evalina is soon taken under the wing of the doctor’s wife, a famous concert pianist, and eventually becomes the accompanist for all musical programs at the hospital, including the many dances and theatricals choreographed by longtime patient Zelda Fitzgerald. Evalina’s role gives her privileged access to the lives and secrets of other patients and staff swept into a cascading series of events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward on the top floor. She offers a solution for the still-unsolved mystery of that fire, as well as her own ideas about the very thin line between sanity and insanity; her opinion of the psychiatric treatment of women and girls who failed to fit into prevailing male ideals; and her insights into the resonance between art and madness. A writer at the height of her craft, Lee Smith has created, through her masterful melding of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, fact and fiction, tragedy and transformation, are luminously intertwined.

Selected by Indie Booksellers for the October 2013 Indie Next List

My Thoughts:
From the moment I learned of this book I anticipated reading it, and hoped I’d love it. I’ve been a fan from afar where Lee Smith is concerned.  I’ve read part of another of her books, but this was my first full book of hers.  Gushing love from authors like Susan Gregg Gilmore and Michael Morris assured me that Lee Smith’s writing would change my life.  Guests on Earth has indeed made a believer out of me, I was completely immersed in the life and stories of Evalina Toussaint.

Through her storytelling and recollections Evalina tells the story of her life.  She shares all she recalls of her young life before she came to Highland Hospital, her life in New Orleans, much of which she observed but didn’t really understand.  Her time at the hospital began at age 13 and she was first there until about age 19, when she left for college at a prestigious school for the performing/musical arts.  I saw the change in her through the therapies that Dr. Carroll believed in.  While she was worried about leaving her second home in NC, she needed to spread her wings.  In less than ten years much happens and Evalina wakes again in Highland Hospital.  Much has changed, including the doctors now running the hospital.  While music, art, horticulture etc are still a part of the therapy, there are even more shock therapy treatments.

While learning more about Evalina in her recollections, the reader also learns the details of the other patients and employees at Highland.  Beyond Zelda Fitzgerald there are many women who become good friends with Evalina, and each of them has a story that broke my heart.  What was diagnosed at mental illness in the 30’s and 40’s would not necessarily be so today.   Beyond depression, many women were simply rebellious and living outside the norm.  Sexual standards were very strict in these times, and a “loose” woman was not accepted. I think we’ve all heard stories of mental hospitals and institutions in earlier times.  The outside picture of Highland Hospital is that of positive therapies and re-directing a patients mind and activities.  Behind those upstairs doors there was extreme shock therapies, and as one fictitious doctor says in the book, no one really knew what it was doing long term to a person’s brain.

Lee Smith has given us a book that looks at mental illness from the inside, from the words and life of Evalina and her fellow patients. Ms Smith has a personal history with this hospital, and upon learning more about the devastating fire that occurred in 1948 that caused the death of 9 patients on the upper floors, including Zelda Fitzgerald, she knew she would write this book.  I loved this book, it made me smile for small victories and cry for losses that appear unable to be overcome.  I’ve given Guests on Earth a 5 out of 5 stars.  I highly recommend this one.

Please take the time to watch this video of Lee Smith.

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