In Gaylord’s debut novel, a teenager locked up in a snake pit of an insane asylum plans a daring escape with fellow inmates.
In 1975, 17-year-old English McKay is living in the aftermath of tragedy. Semicatatonic after a traffic accident killed the rest of his family, he was sent to Hartley State Insane Asylum in upstate New York, where cruel orderlies run the place and subject inmates to torturous electroshock therapy and other abuses. English has a few friends: Andre, who attempted suicide after catching his mother in bed with a lover; Steve, a draft dodger; and hyper, tic-ridden Gordon. A new patient, the pretty, vulnerable Emily (with scars on her wrists), joins their group, galvanizing English into action. She tells him that he can’t allow the evil orderly David Sanders and his cronies to get to him, his friends and, most importantly, Emily. Remembering his father’s lessons about leadership, English devises a bold but clever plan to escape and swim the nearby river to freedom in Canada. The story moves efficiently from first page to last while taking time to supply back stories for each character, including the bad guys and the do-nothing asylum administrator. The novel is perhaps somewhat misleading about electroconvulsive therapy; for example, though English feels “jolts of electricity being forced intentionally into his brain,” the brain itself has no pain receptors. Also, by the 1950s, using a muscle relaxant plus anesthesia in ECT was becoming widespread, avoiding most physical aftereffects. A few anachronisms (indoor climbing walls, juice boxes) also postdate 1975. None of these problems are likely to bother young-adult readers, who will be attracted to English’s modest heroism and quick thinking.
Brisk and exciting; delivers enough teenage camaraderie and dramatic tension to grab the attention of YA readers.