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The latest novel by Paulette Mahurin, A Different Kind of Angel, was inspired by real events chronicled by a journalist for The World News, Elizabeth Cochrane (pen name, Nellie Bly), in 1887. The Jewish Klara Gelfman had a rather normal life in Kiev until the Jews were blamed for the assassination of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II and a fierce pogrom took place in 1881. Klara, suddenly bereft of her mother and siblings, had to flee from Kiev with her father. While traveling to America, her father became ill and died. Klara is unable to express herself in English upon the arrival in the land of freedom and is immediately sent to an asylum for insane people, without any medical research or diagnosis.
Five years of a living hell where the young Klara – she was 19 when she was locked up – had to face malnutrition, torture, sexual abuse, and a stunning absence of any doctor. While some women in their wing indeed were insane, several fellow inmates weren’t just as Klara. With the help of Catherine, she’s able to learn English by reading novels and practicing her vocabulary. Pivotal is the arrival of Nellie who dares to stand up against the wards and nurses and in ten days not only suffers the same treatment as Klara and the other women but also collects enough material to call for her lawyer and lead Catherine and Klara to freedom, as if an angel came to set them free. In 1947 Klara reflects upon her life and serves as the protagonist for this heart-breaking, dark piece of history.
As long as you accept that a former illiterate girl can share rich conversations and details about the life on Blackwell’s Island, this history-fueled fiction is again a great addition to Mahurin’s oeu
I first heard of Paulette Mahurin on author Christoph Fischer’s blog a number of years ago when he was heaping praise on her novel, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap , dealing with bigotry against a lesbian in a small Nevada town in the late 19th century. When Mahurin recently gifted me with her latest book, A Different Kind of Angel, I was reminded that I still hadn’t read The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap. I hope to rectify that error in the immediate future. I am voluntarily reviewing A Different Kind of Angel.
Fictional protagonist Klara Gelfman was sent to a mental institution because she couldn’t speak English. Klara was still imprisoned inside that institution when Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 whose famous lines about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were later inscribed on a plaque placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Yet I discovered through an internet search that this was the same period when the Immigration Restriction League was founded and gained an influential following. They believed that immigrants were inferior and that they would destroy America’s social fabric. I can only conclude that Emma Lazarus wasn’t reflecting the cultural consensus of her time. Her poem must have been aspirational. She hoped that Americans would one day be welcoming toward refugees. Let’s just say that we still need to do a great deal of work on this issue.
What I liked most about this book was that Mahurin brought Nellie Bly’s undercover investigation of the asylum to life powerfully by showing us the impact of their abusive practices on patients. I felt that Mahurin was herself playing the investigative role of Nellie Bly by uncovering the horrors of that institution for her readers before Nellie Bly showed up in the story line.
Author Paulette Mahurin has woven another gripping work of historical fiction, this time centered on a New York “lunatic” asylum where women who were inconvenient to men were discarded. Many were not mentally ill at all, simply no longer useful or of interest. The main character of the book is Klara Gelfman, a Russian Jewish girl who escaped the pogroms in Russia only to be involuntarily and incorrectly committed to the asylum because she didn’t speak English. Working undercover, journalist Nellie Bly of The World News revealed the injustice and brutality (rape, starvation, beating) leveled against women who had no power. Her reporting led to major changes in the asylum and to the release of Klara Gelfman and others.
In some ways this book reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future novel The Handmaid’s Tale. How easily men objectify women and get rid of what they no longer desire or those they simply find inconvenient.
On the way Mahurin details the lives of several ‘inmates’, for many of whom the asylum was the culmination of already horrific lives. The main protagonist being a Jewish woman from Russia who was the sole survivor of her family of the Russian pogrom.
Told in dramatic voice and an affecting manner this is a gripping read that teaches much about history, humanity and the strength of the human spirit. Another incredible story from the pen of a sensitive and compassionate writer that will appeal to her growing fan base no doubt.