Friday, January 17, 2014

Broken Vessels

New Books in Historical Fiction spends lots of time in foreign places. In our fifteen months on the air, we have visited Russia, Scotland, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, China, France, Malaysia, and the Byzantine Empire—sometimes more than once. We have traveled to Elizabethan England with James Forrester and to Morocco with Laurie R. King. We have even made a stop in Nazi Germany. Future destinations include more trips to England (Saxon, Norman, and Regency), as well as Moorish Spain and Central Asia at a time when the Silk Road was in full swing. And that is far from the full agenda for 2014.

But not all exciting journeys end up overseas. We took a trip to Colonial Pennsylvania with Janet Olshewsky and spent some time in Boston with B. A. Shapiro. This month, with Lee Smith’s masterful novel Guests on Earth, we visit the mountains of North Carolina, a world twice removed from our present existence—by time, obviously, since our genre is historical fiction, but also by that imperceptible but inescapable curtain that divides the sane from the insane.

That barrier, which seems so clear on the surface, turns out to be much less so in reality. Some of the characters in Guests on Earth do suffer from identifiable mental illnesses, and others from temporary emotional problems that would endanger their health if left untreated. But many, especially the female patients, seem less “crazy” than reluctant to accept society’s rigid limitations on their behavior. This is, after all, the 1930s and 1940s, when “good girls” were expected to stay chaste, marry young, bear often, and devote their lives to caring for husbands and children. Any deviation from that plan cast doubt on a woman’s sanity, and incarceration in a mental hospital or prison—even forced sterilization—might result.

Lee Smith is a stellar storyteller, both in person and on the page. Don’t miss her interview—or her book. The rest of this post, as usual, comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.

On the night of March 9, 1948, fire consumed the Central Building at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Although people at the time recognized that the fire had been set, the local police department never identified the arsonist. Among the nine women who died on a locked floor at the top of the building was Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife (by then, widow) of the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda’s storybook life had led her from the Beauty Ball of Montgomery, Alabama, to marriage at seventeen and the joys and excesses of the Jazz Age (a term coined by her husband). But the early 1930s brought repeated hospitalizations for schizophrenia. Whenever possible, Zelda wrote and painted and danced, yet she remains known to history primarily as the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan and other rich, spoiled, shallow Fitzgerald heroines.

In Guests on Earth (Algonquin Books, 2013), Lee Smith sets out to correct our images of Zelda. In doing so, she raises questions of what it means to be “crazy,” to be called crazy even if you just do a poor job of fitting in with society’s expectations, or to stand by—as family members must—while their loved ones are taken away to institutions and subjected, if with the best of intentions, to barbaric treatments that represent the “progressive” wisdom of the day. What kind of lives can these “guests on earth”—in Scott Fitzgerald’s words, “eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read”—construct in their moments of lucidity?

The characters in this novel—especially the narrator of the story, a young woman from New Orleans named Evalina Toussaint—exemplify both the ease with which we categorize people whose thinking we don’t understand and the extent to which we do so in error. In 1936, at the age of thirteen, Evalina responds to the death of her mother and brother by refusing to eat and by burning her arms. As a result, she spends the rest of her girlhood and much of her young womanhood as a patient, and ultimately a staff member, at Highland Hospital. There she meets Zelda Fitzgerald, together with a cast of troubled misfits, and herself spends some time on the locked floor of the Central Building. But Evalina also learns to play the piano at Highland, and her skills as an accompanist first take her away from the asylum, then bring her back. By the time you finish her story, you will understand why Lee Smith asks, “Are we not, in the end, all ‘guests on earth’?”

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