Tora lived happily on a mountain farm in Norway until her beloved mother's death  and her own subsequent diagnosis with leprosy, an illness common in early 19th-century Norway and one that drove her mother to suicide.  Upon diagnosis (at the age of 13) she is taken to the leprosarium in Bergen, from which very few emerge.  Most are left there by families whose fear of the disease leads them to abandon even much-loved children, parents, and spouses.  There, despite the misery of living among many who consider themselves the living dead, she finds a friend in Marthe, the chief cook and general caregiver, a woman of almost boundless kindness; and the "Benefactor," a pastor who is remarkably unafraid of the disease from which most flee, and who befriends Tora as she grows into an unpromising early adulthood.  Another unlikely friend is a noblewoman who has languished, embittered, behind a closed door with a trunk full of her old gowns and several cherished books, including the Bible, The Divine ComedyGulliver's Travels, and a popular Norwegian epic about the adventures of Niels Klim at the center of the earth.  She gradually softens toward Tora, who cares for her tenderly as the older woman teaches her to read.  Reading becomes not only Tora's consolation, but that of many of her fellow inmates.  Near the end of her own short, but surprisingly rich life, Tora's father shows up after years of neglect.  Forgiving him, almost against her will, she reaches a new level of acceptance of her own mysterious fate.  The book includes a short afterword about the actual leprosarium in which the story is situated and about Gerhard Armauer Hansen who in 1873 discovered the bacillus responsible for leprosy, the first bacterium proved to be the cause of a chronic human disease.


Though the story is unusually bleak for young adult readers, it is challenging in the best sense, inviting sympathy and imagination for the suffering of so many young people whose lives have been shortened by diseases now scarcely on the map.  Tora's own anguish, confusion, blighted hopes, and resiliency are rendered without sentimentality in crisp, spare, readable prose that allows identification and empathy without much embellishment.  It might best be presented to younger readers in historical context.  The year of the story's main action, 1813, isn't disclosed until rather late in the story, and the rather vague but significant political backdrop would certainly be unfamiliar to American readers.  Nevertheless, it is a worthy window on a kind of affliction few now have occasion to witness firsthand, but which has continued to serve as a powerful metaphor and point of reference in the history of human suffering.


Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count