Lee Smith is one of my favorite Southern authors. Her book Fair and Tender Ladies ranks up there with a book I’d read over and over. Recently she released her latest, Guests on Earth.
I must say, I don’t like the title. I understand the reason for it, but that doesn’t make it any better. It tells the reader nothing about the book. Furthermore the cover does nothing to entice me to read this book. That being said, I suggest you put these biases aside and read this very well-written, interesting story.
Smith takes us back to an event that happened in Asheville, North Carolina in 1948, the fire at the Highland Mental Hospital. Her behind-the-scenes description of life in the hospital are sensitive and at the same time frightening. Most of us think of scenes from One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest when we think of mental hospitals. Smith dispels these misconceptions with bucolic scenes of enormous and flowering grounds, walks through the woods, antics in the art room, as wall as warm relationships. The only scary part happens on the top floors where at that time modern, but at this time primitive treatments occurred. My husband, a psychiatrist, explains that medicine had no other means to help people suffering from clinical depression, schizophrenia or manic depression. Insulin and electro shock treatments worked for many of these patients. Nonetheless, Smith does not spend a lot of time shocking us.
Instead she walks us through the life of one patient, Evalina Toussaint , and her tragic childhood which brought her to Highland in the first place. Then she introduces an array of characters. The most famous of those is Zelda Fitzgerald who lived on and off at Highland hospital for the years up to her death in the fire of 1948.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy reading about historic events, who enjoy meeting interesting and endearing characters and who love good writing. Smith, who’s own son spent time at Highland wrote, “I always knew I’d write this book.” As one of her avid readers, I’m glad she did!
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