Book Review: “Guest On Earth” by Lee Smith

Prospective readers, noting the celebrated Zelda Fitzgerald’s name on the back cover, may be surprised to discover that she is a secondary character portrayed from the perspective of the orphaned Evalina Toussaint. Her days of glory and riotous living long past, Zelda is a broken woman incapable of holding the limelight. By making her a lesser character, Lee Smith showed Zelda Fitzgerald great kindness.

GuestsEvalina begins: For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald, from the time I encountered her when I was but a child myself at 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. Before beginning her story, Evalina, as she does throughout the book, addresses her reader to make clear her intent to be a credible narrator: We must strike up an acquaintance, you and I …

She was born in New Orleans to Louise Toussaint, an exotic dancer.Lest the French Quarter’s unsavory elements taint her daughter, Louise was raising her very carefully. Evalina excelled at the Catholic school and read voraciously, especially English novels from which she acquired exquisite manners. Her homework studiously completed every afternoon, Evalina studied piano with Mojo … a Negro boy not much older than [herself] who would later become famous. Playing by ear, Evalina soon matched Mojo’s prowess. After Louise’s suicide, for which Evalina blamed herself, her happy life vanished.

A few days after she moved into the Catholic orphanage, Mr. Graves, a wealthy and influential businessman, insisted that Evalina live with his family. Overwhelmed by guilt for her mother’s death and his family’s resentment, Evalina could neither eat nor sleep. She writes: As I was already a child with no fat to spare, my condition soon became serious. Fearful of being blamed for her death, Graves sent Evalina to Highland Hospital.

After weeks of nourishing food, rest, and medications, Evalina regained her strength and, happy to comply with Dr. Carroll’s reading prescription, she plunged into Nancy Drew mysteries. Only the promise of chums convinced Evalina to abandon her snug room for the girls’ dormitory. She quickly adapted to Highland’s regimen and excelled in school, but she admits … it was my piano lessons that I lived for, revering Mrs. Carroll above all others … In fact, I intended to be her. As Highland’s accompanist for all musical events, Evalina achieved a special status.

During art class one day, the teacher speaking in French reminded Evalina of her mother, and she began to cry. Zelda Fitzgerald swooped in and declared, “I know what little girls like … paper dolls!” With great flourish, she cutout dolls in bright colors and commanded the astonished Evalina to create clothes and a house. When Evalina decreed a doll a princess living in a palace, Zelda destroyed the doll snarling, “It is far better to be dead than to be a princess in a tower, for you can never get out once they put you up there, you’ll see … you must live on the earth and mix with the hoi polloi.” A few days later, Evalina hesitantly accepted an invitation to build a doll house, but Zelda proved herself a merry companion. As their friendship blossomed, Evalina took Zelda’s mood extremes in stride.

Zelda befriends Evalina because she is reminded of her daughter Patricia “Scotty” Fitzgerald Lanahan and affectionately calls her Patricia Pie-face. Also, Zelda recognizes in Evalina, the girl that she desperately wishes she had been: It is excellent to have an interest in the arts and to begin it early. The saddest thing in my life is that I am no good at it, having begun everything too late.

Evalina, in 1940, leaves Highland for Baltimore’s Peabody Institute to study for world-class pianist status. Instead, postcards to Mrs. Carroll trace her trail back to Highland Hospital six years later. She writes, Thus I found myself in the place I had perhaps been heading all along, the top floor of the Central Building of Highland Hospital … Evalina again adapts to the Highland regimen, resumes her place as accompanist, and participates in a daring experiment: living in a halfway house away from the hospital.

She also witnesses the return of Zelda Fitzgerald: … she appeared as small and frail as a child, in a long, nondescript gray coat that was clearly too large for her … She kept her eyes down, mouth moving all the while … As before, Evalina eagerly waits for Zelda to respond to treatments, so they can renew their friendship. Instead, Zelda embraces religion, reflected in her paintings filled with … tragedy, torpor, or even death. A few months later, the fiery Zelda, whom Evalina longs for, charges into the art studio to announce the birth of her granddaughter. Her paintings, she proclaims, are for her grandchildren … that they may know the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ … Noticing Evalina’s dismay, Zelda honors their friendship, “… and they are for you, too, Patricia Pie-face … for you were once my little girl, too, weren’t you?” She hugged [Evalina] fiercely, terrifyingly, and then she was gone.

Guests on Earth can be read as a novel or as an introduction to Highland Hospital, founded in 1909 as a radical new approach to treating mental illness. Unlike many doctors of his era, Dr. Carroll respected his patients as seriously ill people and instructed the physicians and staff to refer to and treat them as guests. His mandatory programs of occupational therapy, nutritious eating, exercise, and outdoor work revolutionized the treatment of addictions and mental and nervous disorders. Evalina writes that she was … caught up, contained, and comforted by the routine that it had been Dr. C’s particular genius to devise.

Fulfilling her promise to be a credible narrator, Evalina provides an overview of Dr. Carroll’s innovative therapies as she hikes up Point Lookout on Balsam Mountain, works on art projects, studies with Mrs. Carroll, learns to garden, and assists Zelda in choreographing dances for hospital functions. Along the way, Evalina introduces her peers, such as the Gould twins, who are morbidly thin but consider themselves fat, and the exquisite Dixie Calhoun, who checks into Highland to be reeducated and retrained so she can adapt to a Southern belle’s mores. Evalina also introduces male patients: Robert, her first academic competition; and Charles Winston, a shell-shocked World War II veteran; and personnel from Dr. and Mrs. Carroll to the cooks and medical staff.

To make sure her reader fully understands Highland’s entire agenda, Evalina acknowledges that … dire things were always happening – some of these I knew about at the time; others I learned about later. There were several locked wards, as well as isolation rooms …

Because she presents such a meticulous setting, character conflicts are readily identified. As seen through her postcards, Evalina’s adult conflicts begin at the Peabody Institute when she questions her talent and falls in love with a rising tenor. Unlike the naive Evalina, readers know the affair’s outcome. The reader’s quandary is whether to scorn Evalina for her foolhardiness or pity her gullibility. Has she become so dependent on Highland’s protection that she can never leave?

Zelda’s obvious conflicts take second place to her inner turmoil as she laments what she might have achieved as a ballerina, painter, or writer. Staff observations about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contributions to Zelda’s madness pepper her story with intriguing insights.

If Guests on Earth seems to embody a more compassionate tone than professional research and word-smithing might have produced, the reason is Lee Smith’s familial experiences. Her father, mother, and son Josh were hospitalized, her father and Josh at Highland Hospital. She states on her website, “… This story became … part of my story and it became very urgent to me even though it’s taken me a long time to write it. It’s a book that’s been waiting for me to write.” Guests on Earth is also a book that people, whatever their interest in mental illness, have been waiting to read. Only Lee Smith could have penned such a humane perspective of Highland Hospital.

BIO: Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, nine-year-old Smith was already writing—and selling for a nickel each—stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown. Her writer’s training began through a peephole in the ceiling of her father’s dime store. “I didn’t know any writers,” Smith says, “[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories.”

After high school Smith enrolled at Hollins College in Roanoke, where during her senior year, her literary career began to take off. She submitted an early draft of a coming-of-age novel to a Book-of-the-Month Club contest and was awarded one of twelve fellowships. Two years later, that novel, The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed (1968), became her first published work of fiction. Since then Lee Smith’s novels and short story collections have earned numerous awards and, she has often been designated as one of our greatest Southern writers. Contact:

Figaro, observing his surroundings

Figaro, observing his surroundings

View from My Catio
Buddy, T.C.P.E.
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)

Dear Fans and Friends:

Last month, I was proud of Figaro, the tuxedo kitten finally adapting to life here on Old Homestead Road. This month I’m ready to return him to the veterinarian’s office because he sleeps all day and plays all night. Must he fight with his big piece of brown wrapping paper or roll his toys containing bells during the wee hours of the morning? Must he bounce up and down beside the bed, as though on a pogo stick, to wake up Mary so she’ll give us a snack? (She’s well trained.) If this continues I’ll be sleeping at the veterinarian’s office!

Purrs & Cream,
The Buds

Written by Mary Ickes