I started What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman after dinner. I settled in, a throw over my lap, the baby monitor humming by my side. The story hooked me, reeled me in and kept the pace up. When the monitor awoke with angry cries, I pleaded with my spouse to pick her up. When even breathing sounded minutes later, I went back to the book and checked the time. 10:17 PM read the clock. I leaned back and got caught up with Clara and Izzy. The story reminded me of train wrecks and accident scenes. The kind you cannot look away from. You watch and absorb every gory detail because you are fascinated and repelled by it. Wiseman’s portrayal of Willard and the treatment of inmates is akin to that. You read, fear snaking through you. You read, knowing she is going to be broken again and again. You read, fearful that you may never get the ending you are hoping for.
With Izzy, you know she is walking into a trap and yet there is nothing you can do about it. You are locked in with her, straining and reliving her nightmare. Relief when it appears towards the end of the book is sweet and a little too late. You close the book, shut your eyes and think. You head to bed, bleary eyed at a half past midnight and lie. Sleep eludes you because you are still in Willard and Ithaca as you wait for the darkness to claim you.
The writing is powerful. It is clichéd in many places. It is lush and thick and vibrant, assaulting you with more than you can handle. Yet, it works. It works because of the interweaving of stories, the juxtaposition of the old and the new. It is strangely reminiscent of the Orphan Train. Both stories follow a similar arc. One traces the horrors of orphans while the other deals with ‘homes’ for the mentally ill. Both are about people who are marginalized and how our society treats them. Both feature a young girl looking for answers to her past in the memories of a generation before. Both are touched by adoption and reunion. Yet, both stand alone as distinct pieces because of the way they tell the story.
If you are in the mood for a good read, pick What She Left Behind and have a box of tissues handy.