A woman of the early 20th century struggles for self-determination in the face of unexpected love, unimaginable loss, and the stigma of a little-understood mental illness.
In this historical novel by nonfiction author Notbohm (The Autism Trail Guide, 2014, etc.), 26-year-old Annie Rushton leaves home after her abusive mother’s death in 1911, seven years after her own violent episode of postpartum psychosis. That incident culminated in a shattering divorce and the loss of Annie’s parental rights to her then-infant daughter. (“The law is meted out by men,” says a not-unsympathetic judge.) Annie joins her older brother on his homestead in Montana with hopes for a fresh start and soon marries dynamic salesman-turned-farmer Adam Fielding. Their heated passion for each other and their drive for economic success bond them; their mutual desire for a child eventually frays that link. After each miscarriage and after the death of an infant daughter, Annie loses herself to long bouts of severe depression and psychosis. Although there is no divorce, the marriage essentially ends when, during her last pregnancy, Annie is court-ordered to be committed to a mental asylum. Notbohm’s character-driven narrative, spanning more than two decades, is both graceful and unflinching. Annie’s haunting and revelatory dreams, a recurring device, deepen readers’ insights into her psyche. The fecundity of the land (“flat and fertile, ringed by cottonwoods and the opaque Milk River, with its curious lightened-tea tint”) provides a stark contrast to Annie’s brutal miscarriages with their “slaughterhouse” smell. In the descriptions of the disintegration of the marriage, Adam’s emotional unraveling is given authentic weight, as is the societal condemnation Annie faces and the male-dominated legal and medical view of postpartum depression as a moral failing or “madness.” The author doesn’t sugarcoat Annie’s episodes of near catatonia and manic rage or her subsequent road to self-determination, a complex journey of grief, fulfillment, betrayal, and forgiveness. The one defect is the story’s ending: a too-pat catharsis wrapped in self-conscious, poetic sentiment. The book’s title, inspired by Thoreau and the constellation Pegasus, refers to the quilt Annie designs for Adam as a groom’s gift, a recurring, bittersweet symbol of intimate memories, hopes for the future, and, ultimately, absolution.
Despite a flawed ending, this deeply felt tale delivers a vivid and unflinching look at postpartum depression, marriage, love, and death in the early 1900s.