When fellow Tarheel Christine, The Uncorked Librarian, sent out a call for reviews of books set in the south, I jumped at the chance. My pick?
Guests on Earth, by awesome North Carolina author Lee Smith.
The novel is set around an Asheville neighborhood that’s now a stately avenue of historic homes. But there's a grassy field down the road! Peaceful now so hard grasp its heartbreaking significance to literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Explore this Asheville tragedy and read my review of Smith’s Guests Here on Earth. Then click over to The Uncorked Librarian for Christine’s juicy list of southern books to add to your reading stack.
About the Book
Guests on Earth
by Lee Smith
Algonquin Books | 2013 | 326 pages | historical fiction
Here's how author Lee Smith describes her novel:
"Guests on Earth is set at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, N.C., during the years 1936-1948, including the terrible 1948 fire in which Zelda Fitzgerald perished along with eight other women patients in the locked ward on the top floor. Her body was identified only by her charred ballet slipper---for the brilliant Zelda was still a talented dancer and choreographer as well as a writer and a visual artist.
Asheville Literary History
I’d love Lee Smith’s books even if I didn’t live in her North Carolina home state, a frequent backdrop for her tales. Freely disclosing here that her local-to-me tales are especially enticing, but they will hook you, too, no matter where you live.
Guests on Earth is a brilliant historical fiction. Its centerpiece, Highland Hospital for Nervous Disorders, was built in Asheville, NC, in the early 1900s, was run by psychiatrist Dr. Robert Carroll. A mental health innovator, Carroll removed then-standard chains and straight jackets, offering his ‘guests’ instead fresh air, exercise, and creative arts along with counseling.
Dr. Carroll’s wife, Grace Potter Carroll, was a world-famous concert pianist who operated a music school in their adjacent home, Highland Hall. Mrs. Carroll sponsored many concerts, often featuring Highland patients, at their home that still stands proud on Montford Avenue on the historic register of homes.
Highland is forever linked to the literary world by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his Zelda.
The novelist resided at the Asheville at the Grove Park Inn during the summers of 1935 and 1936 to rest from tuberculosis and find writing inspiration. His wife Zelda, a brilliant creative in her own right, was treated at nearby Highland Hospital (for what doctors now suspect was a bipolar disorder) for months at a time during their marriage and after his death in 1940.
The hospital has the sad distinction as the place Zelda where perished. Trapped on the top floor with eight others when Highland burned to the ground in 1948, Zelda was identified only by her ballet slipper.
One hot summer afternoon as I wandered around Asheville, I stumbled across the historical marker commemorating that tragic night.
Smith’s main character, Evalina Toussaint, unravels the mystery of Highland in her compelling first-person narrative Admitted as a delicate child of a New Orleans courtesan and a wealthy aristocratic father, Evalina is a reliable narrator as far as her innocence and vulnerabilities allow. She becomes a student of Mrs. Carroll’s, finding her identity and stability by playing piano at the Carroll’s nearby residence, Highland Hall.
As Evalina accompanies Highland’s patients at musicals, she befriends a tapestry of fellow women patients. Smith portrays these characters with richness and empathy, and you feel their despair. Eventually, Evalina’s life intersects with Zelda’s at the clinic ... two creative, wounded spirits who develop a peaceful coexistence across Zelda's mood swings.
Much of the plot revolves around Evalina’s failed attempts at finding love and untangling dark family’s secrets that trap her. Bouncing in and out of Highland into adulthood, she feels at home there and eventually recovers enough to land a staff position as pianist.
Despite healing, Evalina remains haunted by that terrible night of the fire. As she explains in the opening chapter:
“I bring a certain insight and new information to that horrific event which changed all our lives forever, those of us living there upon that mountain at that time. This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald’s 'The Great Gatsby' was not Nick Carraway’s story, either---yet Nick Carraway is the narrator, is he not?
And is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?”
With Evalina as narrator in Guests on Earth, Lee Smith seamlessly weaves fact and fiction for a compelling read.
More Southern Titles
Hankering for more novels set in the south?
Click over to The Uncorked Librarian for the complete juicy list of Christine's “deep fried and delish tales” to add to your reading stack.
What are your favorite books set in the south? Fave Southern writer? Please share in the comment section to keep book love strong, y'all.
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