Saturday, November 30, 2013

364 (2013 #48). Guests on Earth

by Lee Smith

I requested this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program because I'd read another of Lee Smith's books (On Agate Hill), and the premise of this one sounded interesting.  Smith did a lot of research for this psychological fiction set in the past, and she notes her sources at the end of the book.

The protagonist and first-person narrator is the fictional Evalina Touissant, who is a 13-year-old orphan in 1936 when she is sent to the (real) Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution, due to some self-destructive behavior after her mother's death.

Although Zelda Fitzgerald is mentioned in the blurbs, she is not a major character.  Besides Zelda, the other real people in the book are psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll, who established Highland, and his wife Grace Potter Carroll, a concert pianist who takes Evalina under her wing and provides the one constant (piano playing) in her life. 

Initially, Evalina gets "well" rapidly and becomes a favorite of  the Carrolls.  They send her to the (real) Peabody Institute, and the years from 1940 through 1946 are rapidly covered in a series of postcards from Evalina to Mrs. Carroll.  Evalina suffers a major loss and setback, and finds herself back at Highland, initially a patient again but rapidly moving into a halfway house and a staff position serving primarily as an accompanist.   The story culminates with the (real) 1948 fire that destroyed the main hospital building and killed nine women, including Zelda.

The reader isn't really sure if there is anything really wrong with Evalina, until the end of the book.  Evalina seems oddly disassociated from the tragedies in her life, and perhaps that is intentional of Smith; a mark of Evalina's unrevealed illness. 

The most interesting parts of the book for me were when Smith described the treatments and life at Highland Hospital, and real features of Asheville (such as the Grove Park Inn) and surrounding areas (like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Lake Lure).  Some of the treatments Highland used, apparently innovative for the day, included music, art, drama, shopwork, and "hortitherapy" (gardening), as well as more invasive and dangerous treatments like electroshock and insulin coma therapies.

I felt a bit let down by the end of this book.  Although the hospital and its patients strove mightily to be "normal," ultimately there was sadness and tragedy.  Smith says in the acknowledgments at the end of the story that "I always knew I would write this book," perhaps because of her personal experiences with Highland (her father and son were patients there) and her fascination with Zelda.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received a hardbound copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to my university library.] 

Ironic that the 1912 Report of the North Carolina Board of Public Charities (page 49) described the sanitarium as having "excellent fire protection."

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