Jane Kirkpatrick never fails to deliver.
I have read several of the historical fiction novels Jane has written and enjoyed every one of them. This one, about Dorothea Dix, was a little different for me.
First of all, I knew next to nothing about Ms Dix. I knew that she was a reformer, but assumed it was women’s rights she campaigned for (just to prove my ignorance!)
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the housing situation for the mentally ill that Ms. Dix worked so hard to improve.
The novel really doesn’t play out as story form per se… I would call it more of a ‘biographical fiction’ novel. It skims her childhood and teen years briefly, relates her using her teaching skills and providing schooling for the destitute, and then the remaining two-thirds of the book is devoted to her discovery and subsequent labor to improve, the conditions that mentally ill or disabled adults were living in (most of them at that time, unbelievably, were kept in jails).
Ms. Dix’s courage, perseverance and passion to see society take on its responsibility to those less fortunate then themselves makes for an inspiring story. She painstakingly (and on her own expense), travelled throughout the states, keeping records of what she found. She wrote pamphlets publicizing her findings, and then turned to legislative support, wining and dining senators and pushing for reform.
“My dear sister,” John D.wrote in early August. “I have failed you. We are about to adjourn, and I have been unable to secure your land.”
Dorothea read his words, his sense of failure seeping through them like blood through linen, dark and foreboding and suggesting permanence….
“You did your best,” Dorothea wrote in reply. She must encourage him. There would be another session.
“I have learned there are always obstacles, and it is a mark of one’s character how such challenges are met, how we allow them to shape us. You can reintroduce it again in the winter session.”
This book has piqued my interest in how our country, still expanding and growing at the time, dealt with the many needs of a new land, how our government and democracy work, and how to discern what our role is in society.
One point that Ms. Dix and I disagree on, (if Jane Kirkpatrick’s portrayal of Ms. Dix’s viewpoint is correct), is that Dorothea felt that the pressures of a democratic government contributed to stress and mental illness. However, one cannot but admire the zeal and courage she maintained while seeking to improve living conditions (ignoring the criticisms and social disapproval of a woman working in the public realm).
Dorothea Dix continued to persevere throughout her life, (and never gave up her fight even through many setbacks), to speak for those unable to speak for or help themselves.
“This is a good bill. You know it is. The Senate has just given three million acres for a railroad. I ask for little more for the insane. Is there not a higher authority than politics these men should follow?”
“Unfortunately,” Mann told her with a long sigh, “the wires to that higher authority are strung by men.”