Guests on Earth

HIGHLAND HOSPITAL – 1937 to 1948, Asheville, North Carolina:    Kaleidoscope.  It’s a skillful, descriptive word Evalina Toussaint, the narrator of this skillful and highly-descriptive novel often uses to tell us about the many-colored, changing characters she encounters over ten years as a “guest” at a mental hospital.  Highland Hospital is where “the most effective and humane treatments for mental illness to be found in America at that time” were practiced.  Music, Art, and Horticulture therapies abounded, as well as electroshock and insulin treatments.  Kaleidoscopic implies out-of-this world – and Highland is removed from the outside world, tucked in the “quilt-like landscape” of the Great Smoky Mountains.  It also connotes mysterious – and Guests on Earth has a mysterious quality to it, starting off with an article that really appeared in a North Carolina newspaper reporting on a mysterious fire at Highland on March 11, 1948, killing nine.  There is mystery surrounding a famous guest, Zelda Fitzgerald, “regal and secret as an iris.”  Even Evalina’s diagnosis is a bit of a mystery.  But there is no mystery about the quality of the narrator’s Southern female voice: it is clear, poetic, dignified, and resilient – the reason I think you’ll love this poignant story.

Highland is Evalina’s home, a place she loves and feels loved.  She is treated well.  She sees people “getting better:” “It’s a funny thing but you can actually see improved mental health in the eyes, the face, the very gait, and bearing.”  She tells us that:

“For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald from the time I first encountered her when I was but a child myself at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1937, and then a decade later during the several months leading up to the mysterious tragedy of 1948.”

But Zelda is just one of a multitude of kaleidoscopic “chums,” residents, and professionals peopling this book, “broadening” and “determining” Evalina’s life.  Her chums include brilliant Robert Liebnitz; Jinx, who knows no “social cues” and is “only passing through – a phenomenon, like a comet;” Ella Jean, whose family has deep Appalachian roots and dialect and a distinct culture, lovingly told; Pan, who has no hesitation with words when he plays the guitar, someone Evalina is powerfully drawn to; “Freddy” (Dr. Sledge) from one of “those big square orderly states” (Indiana); and beautiful Dixie, a “blooming rose,” whose friendship makes the book soar.  She looks like Scarlett O’Hara.  She has a “wonderful life,” wealthy, two children and a husband who “loved her to distraction,” yet she too returns to Highland.

Besides Zelda, there are two other important fictionalized characters in Evalina’s world, also drawn from real life: Dr. Robert S. Carroll, the psychiatrist who established Dr. Carroll’s Sanitarium, which became Highland in 1912 and for decades was owned by Duke University’s Neuropsychiatry Department; and Grace Potter Carroll, Dr. Carroll’s wife, a world-famous concert pianist who nurtures Evalina’s piano playing – therapeutic and a rare constant in Evalina’s unusual life.  Of Grace, Evalina says:

“I adored her musky perfume, her dark red lipstick, the longish dresses and high heels she wore regardless of the elements.  I loved it all – the diamond-paned windows that threw the light in rainbow prisms around the room, the sternly beautiful lines of the elegant notes marching across the staves, the rustle as we turned the pages.”

I picked up an advanced reader copy of Guests on Earth at BookExpo America in May, purely by chance.  I don’t recall any special author signing event, to attract attention to this fine work of literary fiction.  I’d love to ask Lee Smith how many “long years” the novel took?  The Acknowledgments and Note on Sources sections reveal an exhaustive list of resources, and the most touching piece of information of all: how Lee Smith’s personal history is connected to this story.  Save that revelation for the end, where it appears, for it will intensify the impact of this emotional novel.

Enjoy Reading, Lorraine

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