On a stormy night in 1968 a retired, widowed schoolteacher in rural Pennsylvania opens her door to find a young couple, she white, he African American, wrapped in blankets, drenched, and silent.  Letting them in changes her life.  They have escaped together from a nearby mental institution most locals simply call "The School."  The young woman has recently given birth.  When Martha lets them in, her life changes forever.   Supervisors from "the School" show up at the door, the young man escapes, and the young woman, memorably beautiful, is taken back into custody.  The only words she is able to speak out of what we learn has been a years-long silence are "Hide her."  Thus she leaves her newborn baby to be raised by a stranger.  The remaining chapters span more than forty years in the stories of these people, linked by fate and love and the brutalities of an unreformed system that incarcerated, neglected, and not infrequently abused people who were often misdiagnosed.  Homan, the young man who loved Lynnie, the beautiful girl from the institution, was deaf, not retarded.  Lynnie was simply "slow," but a gifted artist who recorded many of the events of her life in drawings she shared only with the one attendant who valued and loved her.  Though her pregnancy resulted from being raped by a staff member, the deaf man longs to protect her and care for the baby.  Years separate them; Homan eventually learns signing; Lynnie's sister befriends her and an exposé results in the closure of the institution.  Over those years Lynnie and Homan witness much cultural change in treatment of people like them who were once systematically excluded.  They find social identities that once would have been entirely unavailable to them.  And eventually, after literal and figurative journeys of discovery, they rediscover each other.   


The author, a sibling of a mentally disabled person whose parents refused to institutionalize her, based this story not only on her own experiences, but on a great deal of research into the conditions that dominated in mental institutions in mid-century America.  Some of the incidents and characters are based on actual news stories about abuses of residents, administrative corruption, and public indifference.  The plot is ambitious, romantic, and picaresque, and the characters' internal lives richly imagined.  A thoughtful treatment of the costs and consequences of public disregard of the plight of the mentally ill and disabled.  


Grand Central Publishing

Place Published

New York

Page Count