Oh my goodness.
Oh, did I ever tear up, laugh, cringe, cheer, scream, and almost sob. What a range of emotions swirled around and through me as I read through this historical fiction set in the southern part of NYS...the Finger Lakes region/Seneca Lake.
You must read this book. It is an important piece of NYS/American history......revolving around the history of the conditions of mentally ill people in the early part of the 20th century.
The book is in the voice of two different characters: Clara (18 years old in 1929) and Isabelle (Izzy, age 17 in 1995). Each chapter is one of the girls' voices telling their story.
Izzy Stone is just 7 years old when her mother fatally shot her father to death while he slept. (Yes, we learn later in the book the reason why her mother shot him...but I don't want to reveal that here as I don't want to ruin the plot for you). Everyone has led Izzy to believe her mother must have been "insane" to murder her own husband and the father of her precious little girl. However, she is sent to Bedford Correctional Facility for Women to live out her days. Izzy has only visited her mother once and was raised by her grandmother until age 10 when Grandma died. At that time, Izzy was raised by several different foster families.
Now at age 17, she is finally with people who truly care about her. She is with Harry and Peg who are curators at the state museum. They have enrolled Izzy in the local high school and her senior year has begun. And something else has begun as well: A museum project that they would like Izzy to help them with. They are in charge of cataloging various items found in a former insane asylum. It was known as Willard State Asylum for years, until finally changing to the name of Willard Psychiatric Center. In 1995, it has now closed and hundreds of abandoned suitcases have been discovered.....depicting glimpses of some of the patients' lives.
Izzy discovers a stack of unopened letters in one suitcase, along with a very old journal from the 1930s....and a window into her own past.
Clara Elizabeth Cartwright, is just 18 years old in 1929 and is the daughter of very wealthy and very controlling parents. She is caught between them and her love for an Italian immigrant boy named Bruno Moretti. Clara's father has arranged a marriage for her to the son of another wealthy family in NYC, and Clara rejects this idea. Little does her father know that she is actually pregnant with Bruno's baby and has no desire to be married to someone she does not love. She loves Bruno and wishes to marry him. Before she can run away, her father calls the authorities and has her committed, against her will, to a home for wealthy "nervous invalids". Clara, however, is not a nervous invalid..nor is she mentally ill. This does not matter to her father. He tells her it is for her own good. But soon...the stock market crashes and he loses everything. He can no longer afford for her to live at the genteel facility on Long Island, so she is sent to the public insane asylum at Willard on the shores of Seneca Lake.
Meanwhile, Clara's story, as outlined in her journal, is drawing Izzy in.....and as she discovers that Clara was never really mentally ill, it makes her question her own biological mother....maybe her own mother was never mentally ill .....as she digs into her past she discovers the real reason her mother murdered her father.
What else will she discover about Clara and her own past? Will she ever be able to forgive her mother and face her mother??
There is a lot more to the plot than what I have written above. I basically gave you what the book jacket described. I do not want to ruin the story for you by giving it all away.
This book left me wanting to research the very real Willard State Hospital for the Insane and yes it was a real place in the southern part of New York. It is still standing today and you can tour it on certain dates. Yes, there really were hundreds of suitcases and many of them are on display at the NYS Museum here in Albany, NY. Yes, atrocious things happened to people there and yes, it is true that people who were not truly mentally ill ended up there...especially women.
When I read the story of Clara my heart just broke. The powerful description of life in a 1930's insane asylum and the lack of care by doctors really impacted me. I truly went through a wide range of emotions.
The author's character development is phenomenal. She is a master story-teller, weaving fact in with fiction. I loved it!
I found it hard to put down. It is gripping...and haunting....and full of good and evil. The main themes are love and loyalty and the yearning to belong.
The author gives an interview at the back of the book which I really enjoyed as well. A lot of research went into this story. It is one of the best books I have read yet this year.
In my opinion, this book is appropriate for ages 17 and older. (due to mature content).
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, I rate this a 10.