Since the novel opens in New Orleans, and Guests on Earth by Lee Smith is so rich with description, I decided to split the novel into two posts. In the south, particularly in Louisiana, you’ll hear about “lagniappe,” or a little gift. It’s usually provided to reward a purchase, a little something extra from a proprietor to a favored customer. Think of a baker’s dozen; in theory, the customer isn’t charged for the extra one.
One of my favorite local bookstores,Hockessin Book Shelf, hosts a different kind of book group every month. In their Eat, Drink, Read Group, members gather to savor meals selected from the book while discussing the novel. For July, the EDR group chatted about Lee Smith’s latest, Guests on Earth.
The novel follows Evalina Toussaint, an orphan from 1936 New Orleans , as she travels from the Big Easy to the progressive Highland Hospital. Author Lee Smith Skillfully weaves fact and fiction together as she creates an alternately enthralling and disturbing world peopled with the mentally ill.
Highland Hospital, the colloquial name of Dr. Carroll’s Sanatorium, must have seemed equally grand. The Carroll’s home resembled an ancient stone castle, the Colonial Revival men’s hall and the deep, sheltering porches of the administration building.
In the early 20th century, Ashville was known as “The Paris of the South,” and was a particularly popular destination during the Jazz Age due to its art community and liberal leanings.
F.Scott Fitzgerald frequently visited Zelda while she was a resident of Highland Hospital, and usually stayed at the luxurious Grove Park Inn.
Zelda’s life came to a tragic end on March 10, 1948 when she, along with eight other women, died in a fire. This has cataclysmic effects on Evalina Toussaint’s life, as well as the lives of the other surviving patients.
Some of Zelda’s painting from her time at Highland Hospital survive.
To read the first part of this essay go here.