Search This Blog

Friday, October 19, 2018

A Different Kind of Angel: The False Imprisonment of a 19th Century Refugee

I first heard of  Paulette Mahurin on author Christoph Fischer's blog a number of years ago when he was heaping praise on her novel The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap,  dealing with bigotry against a lesbian in a small Nevada town in the late 19th century.  When Mahurin recently gifted me with her latest book, A Different Kind of Angel, I was reminded that I still hadn't read The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap.  I hope to rectify that error in the immediate future.

A Different Kind of Angel focuses on a fictional woman unjustly consigned to the asylum where  the real investigative journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose their abuse of patients.  Nellie Bly appears as a character late in the novel.

                               

In the current political climate in which my government considers its harsh treatment of refugees justifiable, it's instructive to examine earlier times when American authorities had a similar attitude.  

A Different Kind of Angel's protagonist Klara Gelfman was sent to a mental institution because she couldn't speak English.   She was a refugee fleeing Russia due to a major pogrom that really did occur in 1881 precipitated by the Jews of Russia being irrationally blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.

Mahurin's fictional Klara was still imprisoned inside that institution when Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883 whose famous lines about "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" were later inscribed on a plaque placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.  This was the same period when the Immigration Restriction League was founded and gained an influential following.  They believed that immigrants were inferior  and that they would destroy America's social fabric.  I can only conclude that Emma Lazarus wasn't reflecting the cultural consensus of her time.  Her poem must have been aspirational.   She hoped that Americans would one day be welcoming toward refugees.   Let's just say that we still need to do a great deal of work on that issue.

I thought that Mahurin portrayed Klara and other patients convincingly as human beings.  On the other hand, she has Klara make an observation about the nature of insanity that seemed too much like current ideas.   I agreed with it.  I just don't believe that someone from late 19th century Russia would be thinking in those terms.

What I liked most about this book was that Mahurin brought Nellie Bly's real undercover investigation of the asylum to life powerfully by showing us the impact of their abusive practices on patients.  I felt that Mahurin was herself playing the investigative role of Nellie Bly by uncovering the horrors of that institution for her readers before Nellie Bly showed up in the story line.

                         

                           

                          

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and write this thoughtful, great review.

    ReplyDelete