For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 32, Guests on Earth by Lee Smith
“The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this in a letter to his daughter, referring to his famously troubled wife Zelda. In this book by renowned Southern author Lee Smith, Zelda Fitzgerald is a “guest” of the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. It is 1936, but this institution for women with nervous diseases is modern and innovative, so alongside treatments such as ice wraps and shock therapy, the doctors push patients outside for fresh air and to garden, to exercise and dance, to enjoy music, art, and theatre. In 1948, Highland Hospital burned. The fire devastated the building. Seven women who were trapped upstairs in a locked ward died. According to the police chief, the fire started in the kitchen, but that finding has been disputed. Guests on Earth investigates what might have happened.
The story is narrated by a child. Thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint was a music prodigy, so gifted at playing piano that the hospital director’s wife became enamored of her and had her play for the patients, at social functions, for the pleasure of all. Now, as an adult, Evalina tells the story of her childhood: her years in the Garden District of New Orleans with Mamma and a man named Mr. Graves who was somehow her father; of Mamma’s fall; of being sent to Highland. Because she is favored and a child, Evalina has access to more than the wards and grounds, and so can observe the patients and staff—and Zelda. As she writes her memories of the events leading up to the fire, she makes observations about sanity and insanity and the peculiar qualities of the human mind. She likens herself to Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby and remarks, quite insightfully, that Gatsby was not Nick’s story so this one is not hers—yet, isn’t every story the narrator’s story?
Why is Guests on Earth a good read for women? Zelda Fitzgerald has been the subject of many books, but as Evalina notes, this is not wholly Zelda’s story. This memoir-style novel includes her observations about the treatment and mistreatment of girls and women suffering from mental illnesses that run the range from melancholia to schizophrenia to clinical depression. They are all at the mercy of their husbands or families or doctors or caretakers—just as girls and women suffering mental issues are today. And then there is the mystery of the fire. Lee Smith has a gifted hand with characters, and she weaves fact and fiction here for a heartfelt and riveting story.