Posts Tagged ‘mental hospital’

guestsIn March of 1948, a fire swept through Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C., and nine women died, including Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. The wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda had been an on-and-off resident of the mental hospital for years.

The tragic fire at Highland — still unsolved — bookends Lee Smith’s new novel, Guests on Earth (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, digital galley), which takes its title from something Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter, Scottie: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

I wasn’t familiar with the quote, but it strikes me as a near-perfect description of the mentally ill and/or broken-minded among us. It’s also singularly apt for Smith’s story about life at progressive Highland, where patients were often referred to as “guests” and therapy included exercise, gardening, painting, dancing and other artistic pursuits.

Zelda, a talented “guest” at Highland admired for her dancing and art, plays a secondary role in Smith’s novel, narrated by Evaline Toussaint, the orphan daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. In forthright fashion, Evalina tells of her colorful childhood and the mental breakdown that brings her to Highland in 1936 at age 13. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s director, famous (and real-life) psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll and his concert pianist wife, Evalina comes to consider the hospital her home. She takes lessons from Mrs. Carroll and becomes the go-to accompanist for Highland’s various musical productions — some choreographed by the chameleon-like Zelda — and she easily makes friends with patients and staff members.

All of this is entertaining enough, but the story’s depths increase as Evalina grows older and sets off on a career of her own in the greater world. When tragedy leads to another breakdown,  Evalina returns “home” to Highland, becoming more fully engaged in the lives of others there, musing over the blurred line between madness and sanity.  Her interactions with the patients — depressed Dixie and wild child Jinx, for example — illustrate the shades of normality and societal attitudes, as do her romances with a hardworking doctor and a mercurial gardener. They have backstories, as well, which call up the  “nature vs. nurture” argument.

In an author’s note at book’s end, Smith explains her personal connection with Highland and her extensive research of its history and treatment methods. Certainly, her sense of time and place is acute, especially the “snow globe” months of 1948, but it is Evalina’s tender, considering voice that lends truth to fiction. Is she an unreliable narrator of her own life?  Well, aren’t we all, to one degree or another, whether guest on earth or at home in the world?

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