In the verdant Massachusetts countryside, the latest of Samuel Hood’s grand philosophical experiments at Birch Hill is underway. It’s 1871, and a school for the true instruction of girls—“the training of intellects and souls, hearts and minds”—is a novel undertaking. Intending to give young ladies more to do than embroider and play the piano, Samuel sets out to redeem his first failed intellectual endeavor that took place at the farm.
From the outset of Clare Beams’ first novel, The Illness Lesson, hubris clouds Samuel’s judgment. He believes he’s been chosen by God for this transformative work and that his efforts are validated by the surprising return of arresting, brilliantly red birds called trilling hearts. He desires to teach girls—but really to form them in his image, as he’s done with his daughter, Caroline, who reluctantly becomes the only female teacher in the school.
Eight girls arrive and begin their studies, and Beams poetically chronicles their experiences. The reader’s gaze is Caroline’s; we experience with her a growing unease at what begins unfolding at the school. Her father’s grand, even laudable, dream slowly proves disastrous in execution. Before long, the teenage girls are beset by maladies—fainting, red welts and rashes, strange lack of bodily control—and the doctor who is brought in, Hawkins, diagnoses hysteria. It’s a catch-all label, as the insidious Hawkins himself admits, whose “treatment” is as transgressive as they come. Questions of parental consent are swiftly discarded as the doctor goes about his intrusive plans. Resistant but ultimately compliant, Caroline finds even herself swept up in Hawkins’ machinations. Neither her father nor the other male teacher intervenes.
Beams powerfully explores the nature of susceptibility, manipulation and authority, as well as the strength of the female mind and body. The author’s prose is flowing if occasionally florid, but the style suits the historic setting.
Caroline’s father wants to shape girls’ minds and souls, but eventually the girls—and Caroline—are set free to fly. At a crucial turning point, Beams poignantly writes that “with a survivable body, a person could do anything she wanted,” which becomes a fitting anthem.