8/10/2014 BOOK REVIEW: GUESTS ON EARTH BY LEE SMITH
Sanity and insanity are more closely linked than most people realize, particularly in the lives of artists. Why is creativity often accompanied by some degree of madness? And why are women, particularly in the past two centuries, more likely to be judged insane than men? With a captivating mixture of fictional characters and people who actually lived, Lee Smith explores these questions and others in her latest novel, Guests on Earth.
Among the novel’s true-life characters, the best known is Zelda Fitzgerald. Smith says on her website that the circumstances of Fitzgerald’s death provided a starting point for writing the novel, although the event doesn’t appear until late in the story. Fitzgerald was a patient at Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, when fire engulfed the building in 1948. Nine women, including Fitzgerald, were locked in an upstairs ward and perished.
Guests on Earth begins, however, with its protagonist, Evalina Toussaint, daughter of an exotic dancer in New Orleans. When her mother dies, Evalina is taken in by her mother’s lover, a married man whose wife and daughter aren’t pleased with their new housemate. Longing for her mother and sensing the family’s animosity toward her, Evalina is unable to eat and soon grows weak and lightheaded. When force feeding fails, the family packs Evalina off to Highland with the admonition to “get well.” Highland becomes her home.
After arriving at the hospital in 1936, Evalina is put under the care of Dr. Robert S. Carroll, another true-life character, whose celebrated treatments for nervous disorders and addictions include fresh air, diet, gardening, art, music, and therapies such as rest cures, freeze wraps, and insulin shock. The strenuous regimen of activities is designed to combat “‘the damaging tendency of most illnesses to foster introspection,’ which was to be avoided at all costs.”
One of the first patients Evalina meets at Highland is Fitzgerald, who is in and out of the hospital for the next 12 years. Although Fitzgerald spends as much time as she is allowed in the art studio, she and Evalina become friends. “Some of the things she said have stayed with me still,” Evalina muses later, “the sanest advice imaginable, although it came from a crazy woman. Or was she?”
Fitzgerald is only one of several engaging characters, both fictional and real, who are patients at Highland. Smith draws them all with dignity and respect, a feature of Smith’s writing that runs through all her novels, and has made her one of my favorite authors. Among the notable patients at Highland are Dixie the debutant, Jinx the delinquent, and Pan, the boy who was found living in a cage.
Daughter of a seamstress and a power company employee, Dixie earns scholarships to prep school and college, where she’s invited to make her debut at the Gone With the Wind Ball in Atlanta. Her life seems grand until she becomes pregnant and her parents force her to give the child up for adoption. Her spirit broken, she spends her time drinking and dating less than honorable boys until she meets Frank Calhoun, an apparent gentleman, and marries him. Frank offers her a good life, but she knows she doesn’t deserve it because of her past. She begins to pull out of everything she once loved until one day she can’t get out of bed. Like Evalina, she is treated with insulin shock therapy to erase her short-term memory. When the two first meet, Evalina says, “Her wide violet eyes were flat and dead. Nobody home there, either.”
Jinx arrives at Highland at the age of seventeen. The police social worker who accompanies her says she “has unusual language and musical abilities, physical coordination, and great cleverness, but she has no sense of right and wrong.” In her short life, she’s been ruled a “high moron . . . unmanageable . . . incorrigible . . . dual personality.” At the reformatory where she is first sent, her final act is to set her mattress on fire.
At the age of eight, Pan is discovered living in a cage in his parents’ root cellar, weighing only 48 pounds and walking on all fours. After years in the state mental hospital, he is brought to Highland by Dr. Carroll. Although he doesn’t progress intellectually as well as Dr. Carroll would like, he shows a talent for gardening and is eventually adopted by the doctor who heads the “hortitherapy” program. After the doctor’s death, the new head of hortitherapy says of Pan, “Our most psychotic patients respond to him in a way they do not respond to the rest of us. . . . He knows more than you think.”
Evalina shows strong talent as a pianist, a talent that is nurtured at Highland by Dr. Carroll’s wife, a famous concert pianist. Among her classmates in Mrs. Carroll’s music classes is a girl named Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who would later be known as Nina Simone. Eventually Evalina is accepted into the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where she meets and marries an accomplished tenor. She travels to Europe with him as his accompanist, and life is good despite his many appetites, until she becomes pregnant and he insists on an abortion. She leaves him when they return to her native New Orleans and makes the mistake of calling on the family who first sent her to Highland. A secret revealed during the visit puts her in a mental state that lands her back at Highland.
All of the characters in Guests on Earth are complex and expertly drawn. Their interactions with each other are especially revealing. Smith explains on her website that the title of the novel comes from a letter that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, Scottie, about her mother, Zelda. He wrote, “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”
Next month I’ll talk more about Lee Smith and her personal connection to Guests on Earth.