Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Guests On Earth by Lee Smith

Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, is noted in the 1930's and 1940's for its caring and innovation therapies for those with mental illnesses.  Evalina Toussaint comes to the hospital in 1936 after losing her mother and being an inconvenience to her father who is married to another woman with whom he has children.  Evalina is depressed by these events, and Highland is considered to be a good solution to both Evalina's issues and the fact of her existence.

She is to grow up at the hospital, staying for years although it is acknowledged that she doesn't really need treatments after a while, and she becomes part client, part staff.  Evalina has great musical talent which is developed by the wife of the hospital's founder and most famous doctor.  She develops relationships with the other patients and staff members, coming to consider them her friends and family.

Evalina is sent to a boarding school, and finds love with a man she meets through her musical work.  After their whirlwind affair, she finds herself once again depressed and at loose ends, and returns to Highland Hospital for another stay of years.  Once again, she develops friendships with those who surround her.

There is Dixie, the typical Southern belle, who is inexplicably depressed at times.  Jinx is a seventeen year old delinquent, sent to the hospital in lieu of jail.  Zelda Fitzgerald is the wife of famous novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and the most famous patient of the hospital.  Pan Otto is a groundskeeper who came to the hospital as an abused child and never left.  As Evalina makes her life there, it becomes clear that many of the patients would never be hospitalized in todays' society.  In the 1930's and 1940's, with their emphasis on conformity, many people, especially women, ended up in institutions when they couldn't fit into the lives around them and couldn't be coerced by normal societal strictures to conform to the picture of an approved way of life.

Lee Smith, a North Carolina author, has written a touching novel of society and the way it handles those who do not fit into the normal molds.  The clients are portrayed sympathetically and the reader comes to empathize with their inability to handle life's trials.  The book is an accurate portrayal of how mental illness was handled, with insulin and electric shock therapy, with art and gardening and long walks.  This book is recommended for those interested in North Carolina history and those interested in how we treat those who are different than us. 


oldlawmom said...

I heard Lee Smith talk about this at the last Southern Festival. I have it on my Kindle and am anxious to read it for several reasons. Her son was treated here. He later died due to his mental illness. I have a personal interest in the place that I can't discuss here as well.

Have you read the book by Bruce Holsinger. He was the teacher of my Coursera course that I finished a few weeks ago, and I can't wait to read his book. I would be glad to buy it from you after you read it, as I don't think it is coming out until March. I entered a contest to win one, but that is pretty iffy.

Sandie said...

I haven't read Holsinger's book yet, but I think I have it somewhere in the stacks. I'll look and you are welcome to it after I finish.