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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review: What She Left Behind

(If you must have politics, please scroll down)

Quite simply, the 2013 novel What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman, also the author of The Plum Tree, is the best work of fiction that I've read since I read The Aviator's Wife.

What I've Left Behind revolves around two characters: (1) Izzie Stone, a 1995 high school senior  and the target of school bullying (subplot), has valid concerns as to whether or not she might have a genetic disposition to mental illness; and (2) Clara Cartwright, unjustly confined to Willard State Hospital by her domineering father in 1929, is seeking a way out of confinement so as to reunite with her lover Bruno and the baby to whom she gave birth inside the asylum's walls.  The novel alternates between chapters set in 1995 and 1929.

This novel was inspired in large part by the 2008 work of nonfiction The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (2008) by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny — a book which I also recently bought from Amazon after I saw this photo essay in the Daily Mail.  In addition, I have a personal interest in topics of this sort: my paternal grandfather (1860-1942) died in a mental state hospital, where he was briefly confined upon his descent into senile dementia.

Ms. Wiseman is a wordsmith who employs strong imagery, and she knows how to use the English language not only to further the novel's plot but also to evoke a strong response from the reader. For example, read the following brief excerpt about the moment that Izzie, whose foster parents are working on the asylum project and have persuaded Izzie to help with the project, opens one of the suitcases left behind in the asylum:
...[S]he didn't want to breathe in the decades-old dust or smell the arid odor of decay radiating from the insides of the suitcases and the yellowing baby clothes. The dry, pungent aroma and bitter tang of death reminded her of old graves...


...She knew it was crazy, but she pictured microscopic particles wafting up from the baby bonnets and silverware, starting a psychotic chain reaction that, when the tainted molecules reached her brain, would seal her to her mother's fate....
(page 67)
I will not give away the ending of the wonderful novel What She Left Behind.  I will say, however, that the ending is both happy and poignant.  There is indeed a Nurse Ratched in the novel, but there is also Nurse Trench, certainly not a Nurse Ratched.  What She Left Behind is not a rerun of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest!

Overall, I found myself cheering several times while I was reading the novel.  What She Left Behind is not a dark novel!  At the same time, it is a realistic novel.  Of course, because this book is indeed a novel, not all events are historically accurate, and the author makes no pretense of historical accuracy of events tangential to the conditions that prevailed in mental asylums; for example, the 1949 Holland Tunnel Fire did not cause any actual fatalities other than that of one firefighter, but the author used fatalities to facilitate the novel's resolution.

A riveting read!  I recommend this book without reservation to all over the age of thirteen.

Ellen Marie Wiseman's What She Left Behind is available at most public libraries and at Amazon.


  1. As I've been saying for many years, good fiction, genuine poetry, and great music have more to teach about Reality and give better instructions in the Art of Living than any soul-deadening list of statistics or dry reportage of facts and figures.

    Those who would deny that have let themselves become mere cogs in someone else's "machine" -- an infernal contrivance in which they have no rights and over which they have no control.

    It's no accident that totalitarian regimes burn books execute learned men and forbid access to large areas of Art and Music deemed "antithetical" to the aims of the Regime.

  2. Miss Emily certainly agreed with me, though she put it much more succinctly and colorfully, when she gave us:

    There is no Frigate like a Book
    To take us Lands away
    Nor any Coursers like a Page
    Of prancing Poetry ––
    This Traverse may the poorest take
    Without oppress of Toll ––
    How frugal is the Chariot
    That bears the Human Soul ––

    ~ Emily Dickinson (1835-1886)

    I wonder if many today know what a "Frigate" is, or a "Courser?"

    What does she mean by "prancing poetry? Does anyone imagine she believed it literally leapt off the page and danced around the room?

    Do you suppose she honestly believed that a "chariot" -- probably drawn by a team of horses -- carries our souls around like so many bushels of wheat?

    Poetry stimulates use of the imagination, and as Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

    Why is that?

    Because "knowledge" without imagination is DEAD. It means nothing, achieves nothing, amuses or instructs no one, helps no one live a better life. And remember this: All INVENTION started in someone's IMAGINATION.

  3. FT,
    As you know, I've been spending less time on the web. I'm busy with reading good books -- most of them belonging to the genre of new fiction. I choose carefully, of course, because much of the new fiction is shallow, simplistic, and unimaginative.

    Because I'm so often stuck in traffic, I'm listening to Anita Shreve's Stella Bain. I love Anita Shreve's novels!

    I also read recent nonfiction. Right now, I'm reading The Death Class: A True Story About Life. The title is a fooler in that the book is actually not about the usual "death classes." Rather, the book is about courage found under some of the worst personal circumstances.

    Next up on my reading list: Miss Hargreaves, a book that you have read and reviewed.


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