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Volume 25, Number 1 — January 2018

Lee Smith's latest novel is good news

By Ben Jennings | A! Magazine for the arts | September 25, 2013

Lee Smith has written a new novel, "Guests on Earth," her first since "On Agate Hill" in 2006. This is good news for her many readers and friends in the region, and the other good news is that this novel ranks up there with "Fair and Tender Ladies" and "Oral History" as one of her best works.

The title of the novel comes from a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter Scottie: "The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read."

This work of historical fiction recreates life at the acclaimed mental hospital, Highland Hospital, in Asheville, N.C., from 1936 to 1948, the same span of time that Scott's wife Zelda Fitzgerald was treated there-until her death in a fire at the hospital.

The novel is told from a young girl's perspective. Evalina Toussaint, an orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just 13 when she is admitted to the hospital. Evalina and Zelda are both treated by the celebrated psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll, whose innovative treatment for mental disorders and addictions included fresh air, diet, exercise, gardening, art, dance, music and theater.

Evalina becomes a talented pianist, under the guidance of Dr. Carroll's wife, herself a world-renowned concert pianist. Evalina has privileged access to the lives of the many patients at the hospital when she becomes the accompanist for the dances and theatrical productions at the hospital, some directed by Zelda Fitzgerald.

Advance publicity about the novel hinted that this was another work about Zelda Fitzgerald, joining the numerous biographies, operas, musicals and novels appearing in recent years about the iconic, tragic feminist figure.

Zelda, however, is just an ephemeral figure floating in the background of the novel, not its main character. This is Evalina's story, and she is Smith's most fully realized character after Ivy Rowe in "Fair and Tender Ladies."

Just as Zelda did, Evalina moves in and out of the hospital as bouts of depression-and schizophrenia-ebb and flow. She travels the world, studying at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, accompanying a famous opera singer Joey Nero on world tours, living a full, rich artistic life.

At its heart, "Guests on Earth" explores the thin line between creativity and mental illness, thus the parallels between Evalina and Zelda, who was an accomplished dancer, painter and writer.

Evalina develops deep friendships with an interesting array of patients who come and go to the hospital: both men and women who are from all over the country, from various social strata. As in many of Smith's novels, there are the "insiders" to Appalachian culture and the "outsiders," in this case, Evalina.

As Thomas Wolfe did in "Look Homeward, Angel" and Barbara Kingsolver in "The Lacuna," Smith brings to life the allure of Asheville for young artists. The vibrancy of the downtown, the Grove Park Inn, and especially the variety of cultures are all reflected. When Evalina goes to a redneck honky-tonk, she says, "I felt like I was in another world, a secret world filled with delicious food and wonderful smells and vibrant colors and catchy music that existed deep inside the Asheville I knew. I felt like Alice, fallen down another rabbit hole."

This new novel has the power and depth of feeling of Lee Smith's best work because it is surely her most personal work — or as she says in the epilogue, "I have my own personal knowledge of the landscape of the novel." Smith's father was a patient at Highlands Hospital in the 1950s, and her son Josh was in and out of the same institution in the 1980s until his untimely death at age 32 in 2003. Smith says, "I always knew that I would write this book."

(To read Smith's poignant account of her son Josh Seay's two-decade-long struggle with schizophrenia, go to her official website, www.leesmith.com, click on Works, then Articles where you will find "Goodbye to the Sunset Man," originally published in The Independent Weekly, October 2004.)

Lee Smith, originally from Grundy, Va., is one of the most acclaimed contemporary Southern writers. She is the author of 12 novels and four collections of short stories. She has retired from teaching creative writing at North Carolina State University and lives in Hillsborough, N.C. "Guests on Earth" will be released Oct. 15.

Ben Jennings recently retired after 45 years of teaching English and Film at Virginia Highlands Community College and coordinating its Arts Array cultural outreach program. He is one of the founding members of A! Magazine for the Arts and serves as co-chair of the editorial committee.