National Book Award-winner Whelan (Homeless Bird) sets this straightforward and thoughtful story at an asylum for the mentally ill in 1900. Narrator Verna and her younger sister, Carlie, move to a house on the hospital grounds with their psychiatrist father and dour busybody Aunt Maude (the girls' mother died of typhoid). Verna immediately feels a kindred spirit with Eleanor, the cheerful asylum patient who begins working as a maid for the family. Jealous of the girls' affection for Eleanor, Maude grows increasingly vindictive, until Papa is forced to send her packing. Fearing the appearance of impropriety, given that he and Eleanor (of whom he's clearly grown fond) are both single, Verna's father dismisses her, which sends the young woman spiraling into depression. Though overwrought imagery ("Eleanor was always on my mind, a singing bird hidden high in a treetop") occasionally bogs down the narrative and an abrupt, inconclusive ending will leave some readers feeling cheated, Whelan adds authentic period flavor and crafts affecting moments-some in the asylum's locked garden-between the sisters and the recovering Eleanor. Ages 8-12. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In the year 1900, Verna's papa, a well-known psychiatrist, has moved her, her younger sister Carlie, and their stern Aunt Maude to Michigan where he will work in an asylum with mentally ill patients. After losing their mother to typhoid, the girls are hesitant to leave the city, but eager for new adventures in their country home. When Eleanor, one of the patients who has made a remarkable recovery, comes to work for the family, Aunt Maude objects, voicing the prejudices and rumors that abound regarding those who live and work in the asylum. Whelan's descriptions and characterization give the reader a taste of what it was like for those whose mental illness was not treated as an illness in the early 20th century. By choosing an adolescent girl to narrate the story, Whelan allows the reader to approach this topic with innocence, compassion, and kindness. Reviewer: Vicki Sherbert
Children's Literature - Ellen Welty
Verna and her family have moved away from their home to a new home at a remote mental hospital because her father has accepted a position there on the staff. Verna and her sister have fond memories of their life in their old home before their mother died. Now strict Aunt Maude takes care of them and has accompanied the family to their new home. Verna and Carlie become friends with one of the asylum patients who has been assigned to help with housekeeping tasks at their house. This makes Aunt Maude jealous and spiteful and she takes out her jealousy on Eleanor, the young patient. Verna decides to take matters into her own hands and she and Carlie plot to get Aunt Maude to leave so that Eleanor can take care of them permanently. The situation soon gets out of control however and cannot be resolved as simply as Verna wishes. This is a charming and often humorous family story with some lessons about compassion and history tucked in. Reviewer: Ellen Welty
School Library Journal
Gr 4-6–Verna and her sister Carlie are still dealing with the death of their mother and the arrival of her harsh and dour sister, Aunt Maude, when their father accepts a position as a staff doctor at a hospital for the mentally ill. When he brings Eleanor, a young patient recovering from depression, into the home to help with the chores, Aunt Maude sees her as a threat while the girls welcome her with joy. Though Maude and Eleanor’s father bring condemnation and pain into Eleanor’s life, the children, their father, and the hospital administrator reach out to her with acceptance and love. The story explores the prejudice that shadowed the lives of the mentally ill at the turn of the century as well as what it means to be “normal.” As Verna stands up for what she thinks is right while trying out questionable means to attain her goals, the author allows readers to experience the development of her maturity and character. At the conclusion of the story, readers see a real girl who has not learned all of life’s lessons and has not made all the right choices but is still in the process of learning and growing. A thoroughly enjoyable read.–Debra Banna, Sharon Public Library, MA
From page one, National Book Award winner Whelan establishes a strong sense of time, unusual setting and characters-an asylum for the mentally ill in 20th-century Michigan. After Verna and younger sister Carlie's mother died, their psychiatrist Papa moves the family to a house on the grounds of an asylum for his work. One of the patients, a young woman who is recovering, is sent to keep house, and the girls becomes very attached to her, much preferring her to their strict and disapproving Aunt Maude. Though the girls would like her instead of Maude to take their mother's place, having a single woman living in the same house with a widower would be a scandalous social impropriety. At the core is Verna's strong-willed determination to keep Eleanor from her abusive father. This convincing melodrama portrays an atypical attitude toward treating mental illness by involving patients in gardening, singing and farm chores. While some plot details are convenient, this exceptional story never lets the focus override the characterization. (Historical fiction. 9-13)
“The evocative setting is a backdrop to the sensitive, sometimes comedic family story.”