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Guests on Earth

Color photo of vast mountain ridge in the distance beneath blue sky and white clouds; butterflies and flowers are in the forefront

  “Guests on Earth: A Novel”
Author: Lee Smith
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Pages: 337
Price: $25.95 ( Cloth )

Lee Smith’s seventeenth book of fiction combines the thoroughly imagined with some elements of the traditional historical novel.

The protagonist, Evalina Toussaint, is a little girl being raised by her courtesan mother, Louise, on the rue Dauphine in New Orleans’ French Quarter, over the cabaret Bijou. Life is good. After school, Evalina learns piano downstairs, in the bar. She has a natural talent. At night, the music of trumpets and saxophones floats up from below. On Sundays Evalina and her mom go to mass at St. Louis Cathedral followed by beignets at the Café du Monde.

But matters fall apart quickly when the rich cotton broker Arthur Graves falls in love with Louise. He sets up mother and daughter in a house in Metairie where newborn brother Michael dies. Inconsolable, Louise becomes an opium addict and then a suicide. Although married, with other children, Graves means to do right. He takes his illegitimate daughter into his family home in the Garden District, but his wife and other children don’t welcome her, to say the least. Evalina, 13 years old, traumatized, is sent to the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.

Highland is one of America’s most famous literary mental hospitals, like St. Elizabeth’s in D.C., where Ezra Pound was committed, and there Evalina makes the acquaintance of Zelda Fitzgerald, Highland’s best-known patient.

Throughout the novel the narrator Evalina will observe Zelda, serving as accompanist for dances Zelda choreographs and directs. She also has occasion to watch Zelda making elaborate paper dolls and painting her dancing figures, with grotesque, swollen, expressionistic legs and feet, and her wild landscapes, more glimpses inward than depictions of nature. On rare occasions Evalina catches sight of the famous, handsome Mr. Scott Fitzgerald when he comes to visit.

Highlands is under the direction of Dr. Carroll, an actual historical figure who promoted activities such as long daily walks, art therapy , crafts, theatricals, and especially hortitherapy—gardening outdoors in summer, in greenhouses in winter, “thus combating the damaging tendency of most illness to foster introspection.”

Lee Smith has done a good deal of research into Dr. Carroll and his therapies. Some treatments—not the activities mentioned above—seem bizarre and cruel to us now, like the then- recently discontinued “horse serum treatment in which equine blood had been injected directly into a schizophrenic’s cerebrospinal fluid.” But insulin shock therapy, during which the patient is put into an induced, dangerous, diabetic coma, with convulsions, had some good effects. It is clear in this novel that Highland is no snake pit; the staff is kind and the therapies are the best known at the time.

Mrs. Carroll, the director’s wife, is a celebrated pianist. Evalina studies with her, and improves dramatically.

The action of this novel progresses over a period of years with Evalina in and out of the hospital, having both staff and patient status at different times. Zelda is also in and out, getting better, leaving, and then after some crisis or other, returning.

Smith, like many others today, believes Zelda to have been bipolar, not schizophrenic, arguing that otherwise her course would probably have been steadily downward.

Evalina makes friends with a wide cast of doctors, nurses, staff and fellow patients. Patients and staff, it seems, come over time to both need and love one another, to complete one another.

Evalina, perhaps because she is a natural accompanist, is also a naturally good listener. The other patients open up to her easily and tell her their stories. Robert Liebnitz is a troubled mathematical genius. Jinx Feeney was raised in a violently dysfunctional family and sexually abused so has become a nymphomaniac, called in the novel a “moral imbecile.”

Dixie is a vivacious woman, well-read, but suffering from guilt and nearly terminally low self- esteem. One day “she just couldn’t get out of bed.” Dixie doesn’t conform well to her husband’s expectations, and, true to the times, she is at Highland to be “reeducated, retrained,” for marriage.

A character named Pan is a feral boy, having been raised in a cage. Evalina likes to visit Pan in the cave where he lives. There’s just something about a feral boy.

There are many stories needing to be told at Highland and Lee Smith delights in telling them.

A native of Grundy, Virginia, Smith has delighted in writing about the Appalachian people, their folkways, their food, and their music, throughout her career and, not surprisingly, Evalina makes friends with some of the local day staff. Evalina visits Ella Jean’s family up in their “holler,” enjoys a feast of cornbread, green beans and “a piece of something with thick gravy on it. “ When Evalina asks, she is told “meat.” “I did not pursue this topic” she tells us, “but ate every bite.”

The Hodges family sings and plays guitar, dulcimer, and banjo. Later in the novel they will achieve some popular success, and Evalina, the classically trained pianist, will be sorely tempted to go on the road with them, instead of sticking with her more formal career.

Zelda’s sad ending in the 1948 hospital fire is duly reported, but the center of this novel is the likeable and engaging Evalina, who goes on to a complicated life of her own, with her own disappointments and triumphs.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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