Inspired by real events chronicled by a journalist for The World News, Elizabeth Cochrane (pen name, Nellie Bly), in 1887.
Klara Gelfman’s life in Kiev was serene until she turned nineteen. That’s when Russia’s Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and a vicious propaganda campaign spread that blamed the Jews for his death. Klara and her family became victims of the many pogroms breaking out throughout Russia. None were so violent as what hit Kiev in 1881. It was there that Klara’s family was torn asunder and her world changed forever.
This is the story of what happens to this traumatized, orphaned, young Jewish woman when she escapes Russia and crosses an ocean to arrive on the rough streets of New York City able to speak only a few words of English. There, in the land of the free, Klara’s life is thrown into turmoil when she is mistaken for a drunken prostitute. Mistreated by those entrusted to protect her—the police, a judge, doctors, and nurses—she is condemned to an unrelenting hellscape when she is incorrectly and involuntarily committed to a lunatic asylum.
At a time when women had no political, economic or professional rights, comes a story where corruption by the powerful was as overt and commonplace as was garbage on the New York City streets. From the award-winning, international best-selling author of The Seven Year Dress comes an unforgettable story of the devastating effects of persecution, hatred, and arrogance. A Different Kind of Angel is also a story of love, family, friendship, and loyalty. It is a journey into the nature and heart of the resilience of the human spirit that will leave readers thinking about the story long after they finish the book.
You may be wondering, but what about the book? The beauty of every Paulette Mahurin book is that the fiction she weaves around historical fact is so compelling that you have to wonder what parts are fictional. Klara, the protagonist, is both brave and timid, ready to fight for her life in the asylum into which she was unjustly placed and ready to give up (if only briefly). The women she meets in the dorm of asylum makes the reader wonder if insanity is the only sane way to cope with the endless, capricious, savagery to which they are subjected. And in the midst of all the misery, this talented author does not let us forget that kindness glows warmly in the darkest and coldest of corners.
Each authority figure in or out of the asylum has a unique flavor of malice that drives them to behave in such loathsome ways towards the women who fall victim to imprisonment in the asylum and social discrimination. Ms. Mahurin, in effect, has deftly created in these opposing forces: the powerless female patients and the hateful, often violent “caretakers;” the greater and the lesser selves that we all carry inside of ourselves—the ultimate battle of good and evil, of angels and demons.
I shudder to think about how much of it is true. But I did some amateur research and found out that the conditions Ms. Mahurin describes in the Blackwell Asylum and the kinds of tortures these women underwent are all real. So is the character of Nelly Bly. Much of what anyone knows about the inside of insane asylums comes from her groundbreaking investigative journalism in the 1880s.
A Different Kind of Angel is a book you will never regret buying or reading. I can’t stop thinking about it and the lessons we could use today to treat unfortunate others with more compassion. This is the kind of gift this book gives to you beyond several hours of good, old-fashioned reading pleasure.
The part where the journalist Nellie Bly steps through the doors of the asylum is probably known to some readers who are familiar with the story. I absolutely loved how masterfully fact and fiction were interwoven in this novel, bringing to life the secrets long lost to the shameful American past. If you love historical fiction – definitely add it to your must-read list. Highly recommended!