A 17 year old girl who has spent half of her life in foster care. An 18 year old young woman wrongly committed to an insane asylum in the 1920’s. What could bring these two together?
The answer, it turns out, is Ellen Marie Wiseman. Wiseman, who gained recognition for her debut novel The Plum Tree, is a local author. She grew up in nearby Three Mile Bay. In her second novel, What She Left Behind, Wiseman drew inspiration from The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stasny. Fascinated by the possibility of finding suitcases that give us insight into the lives of patients from long ago, Wiseman built her own tale, weaving past and present together in a compelling read.
There are two storylines in What She Left Behind. In one, 17 year old Izzy adjusts to a new set of foster parents. Izzy has been in foster care for nearly half of her life, ever since her mother inexplicably murdered her father and changed Izzy’s life forever. Resentful of her mother, Izzy refuses to visit her and struggles to make peace with her past. Now that she is 17, she is on the verge of adulthood, on the verge of having to leave the foster care system. The story opens with her being placed with a loving couple and she is anxious to please them. At school, she faces bullying and isolation, but outside of school, Izzy spends her time helping her new parents sort through and record the contents of suitcases uncovered at Willard asylum, located near Seneca Lake.
This is where fiction and nonfiction merge. The actual Willard Assylum for the Insane was located in Upstate New York and in 1995, four hundred suitcases were discovered there. The contents of the suitcases render a poignant glimpse into the lives of people who entered the asylum where they were held like prisoners. Many died there, often buried in unmarked graves, their lives all but forgotten. Photographs of some of the suitcases that were discovered can be found here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2338714/The-chilling-pictures-suitcases-left-New-York-insane-asylum-patients-locked-away-rest-lives.html
From this newsworthy discovery, Wiseman creates the life of Clara, a beautiful and vibrant young woman of the 1920’s. Like Izzy, she is also on the verge of adulthood. She is young and in love, but she is also the daughter of a wealthy, but cold and domineering man. Angered by her defiance of him, he has her committed to an Insane Asylum. Initially, she is sent to a home for upper class “nervous invalids,” but the stock market crash changes that and she is transferred to the public asylum at Willard. At Willard, she is subject to the type of abuse that is a shocking reminder of the treatment the mentally ill had to endure during that time period.
Chapters alternate between Clara and Izzy and we are privy to the struggles of both these characters. When Izzy discovers Clara’s journal, she is drawn into the past and she becomes determined to make things right.
What She Left Behind reminds us that the past is always there; but it is possible to rise above what haunts us.
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