Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: "What She Left Behind" by Ellen Marie Wiseman

When I saw the lists of books available for review from the Historical Novel Society, I immediately spotted What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman. I am completely enthralled by the history of mental institutions in America. Perhaps it was growing up with the specter of the infamous South Carolina Lunatic Asylum located in Columbia, SC (the phrase "You're headed to Bull Street" was a nice or funny way of saying you were going crazy) or maybe it's just my love for old, abandoned buildings, but I'm total sucker for an insane asylum. I'm not one of those "heeby jeeby" folks but if you get within spitting distance of one of these buildings, you can feel the negative energy. And it's for these reasons that this novel is so compelling.

From "Asylum: Inside the Closed Walls of State Mental Hospitals"
One of my favorite architecture books is entitled "Asylum: Inside the Closed Walls of State Mental Hospitals" and one of the most heartbreaking photos in the book is of the left behind effects of the former patients. Many never even made it out of their confinement, and were simply buried on site, behind the walls that held them in. It is these left behind effects that connect the two protagonists in this novel.

What She Left Behind chronicles the lives of two young women living approximately 60 years apart. Izzy Stone has been in and out of foster homes since her mother fatally shot her father and was sent to prison. Convinced that her mother is insane, Izzy is particularly sensitive when her latest set of foster parents ask her to help them catalog the personal effects of the former patients of a shuttered mental institution. She is shocked to discover the contents of the large steamer trunk belonging to Clara Cartwright, an 18-year-old girl committed to the asylum in 1930. Through the reading of Clara’s diary, Izzy embarks on a mission to discover the girl’s fate.
 
There is certainly a shock factor to What She Left Behind. Clara is committed to Willard Asylum after she defies her father by taking an Italian immigrant as her lover. The harsh conditions and backward treatments of the asylum are painful to read; indeed, they are the stuff of nightmares. The idea that women were committed for disobeying their husbands or fathers, or for engaging in behaviors deemed unsuitable in polite society, is frightening. As Clara wonders throughout her captivity, how many sane women are committed, only to lose their minds after the fact?
 
Wiseman does an excellent job of conveying the horrifying methods employed to cure the mentally ill. The lack of compassion and sometimes outright brutality of the nurses and doctors are astounding. Though Clara is extremely na├»ve, and sometimes one- dimensional, her narrative is much more compelling than Izzy’s, whose story reads like a young adult novel at times. Despite this, What She Left Behind is a real page turner and will appeal to all readers of fiction, though the subject matter is not for the faint of heart.

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