In Dainty’s debut novel set in the late 1950s, a 16-year-old girl grapples with personal loss in unimaginable conditions after her troubled, alcoholic mother forces her into a mental hospital.
After the tragic death of her sister and father in an accident in October 1957 (the day after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1), Gertrude “Gertie” MacLarsen is sent to Willow Estate Sanatorium. During Gertie’s stay, she faces her grief and her mother’s rejection, forms relationships with others, and eventually finds a sense of community under the most unlikely circumstances. At the same time, she witnesses horrors, including abuse, suicide, and rape, and notes the uneven power dynamics between the patients and hospital staff. But she also finds friendship, love, and a vision for the future away from her tragic past and broken family. Dainty’s descriptions of the treatment of mental health patients are alarming; several particularly disturbing scenes depict unethical therapies in detail. However, the author counters the dark content with poetic prose, as when Gertie notes that “My name...sounded like someone had taken a bag of smooth sounds and smashed it against the wall until nothing but edges remained.” The book also offers a well-developed, layered cast of characters with unique back stories, including Elizabeth Jacobsen, Gertie’s confidante who’s been at Willow Estate for more than five years; and Clement “Pope” Marshall, a young man with a stutter who becomes Gertie’s love interest. When Gertie realizes that everyone, from her fellow patients to the ward’s nurses, has a voice that should be heard, she creates a publication that circulates around the ward. After one issue featuring anonymous submissions falls into the wrong hands, Gertie’s journey shifts from survival to a fierce reclaiming of life. Although the concept of a teenage girl winding up in a mental hospital isn’t exactly new in YA, the specificity of this story’s time period enables the author to tackle it in a fresh way. Sputnik 1, for example, remains a symbolic anchor throughout the story, acting as Gertie’s greatest connection to her deceased father. Dainty successfully weaves in concepts of space exploration, stars, and the vastness of the universe, often using them as metaphors for her protagonist’s tribulations.
A beautifully written coming-of-age story from a promising author.