The Bright Unknown
One of the last passages in the The Bright Unknown is “A lot of bad had to happen for us to have all the good in our lives.” One thing I can definitely attest to is that a lot of bad happens in this story. Whether that was truly necessary in order for any good to occur – and whether the story needed to concentrate on the bad over the good – I am less certain.
In 1927, Brighton Friedrich is born in the Riverside Home for the Insane. The daughter of an unwed, mentally ill young woman, Brighton is kept in her mother’s room under the excuse that it helps keep that lady calm. For years, all Brighton will know are the dingy walls of that institution. A nurse, Joann, nicknamed ‘Nursie’ by Brighton, becomes her substitute parent. With her own mother too sick to speak or even meet her eye, it is Nursie who educates Brighton and allows her a friendship with a young albino boy from the children’s ward, named Angel. She plans small birthday parties for Brighton, supplies her with treats like books and keeps the young girl surrounded by the healthiest patients such as Mickey, who makes the child a rag rug, and tells her stories. While Brighton knows her captive life is in no way normal, by the time she’s sixteen, she’s grown to accept and be at peace with it. Then she hears a conversation between Nursie and one of the doctors that changes everything. They’ve been keeping secrets, information regarding both Brighton and Angel that would illuminate where the children came from, why they are at Riverside – and just what might set them free from their confinement in that unholy institution.
Confronting her beloved surrogate mother doesn’t turn out well for Brighton, however. Nursie gives her a shot of insulin and has the orderlies place Brighton in solitary confinement. Being treated like a patient rather than a person for the first time forces Brighton to realize that she needs to flee Riverside. And as luck would have it, no sooner has Brighton come to this determination than another girl is placed in solitary in the cell beside her. Grace has been brought to the asylum for ‘moral insanity’ a charge/ diagnosis leveled against her by her father when she falls in love with a young black man. Grace has a knowledge of how the world works that Angel and Brighton desperately need if they are ever to leave Riverside. And fortunately, she’s willing to help her new friends plan their escape.
This story is told in a dual time format, so from the beginning we know that the escape does occur and has at least one survivor. We also know, without being given any tangible details, that that survivor has had a fairly good life. And finally, we know that they look back on their time at Riverside as truly horrific. I did, too. The book capitalizes on all the malevolence humanity once doled out to those who are different. There is pain, despair, appalling injustice and mistreatment. Women are placed in straight-jackets for asking for food, children are bathed with ice cold water, the food served is described as slop most people wouldn’t give to their dogs, the use of insulin to calm a patient is terrifying to anyone who knows anything about the drug, lice abounds, patients are denied clothes and forced to sit naked in common rooms , many soil themselves and have to sit for hours in their befoulment because there is no help, women who refused to cooperate with their families are mercilessly imprisoned against their will – that and so much more exists within these pages. Even the world on the outside treats those who don’t meet their perfect standards terribly and when a naïve Angel and Brighton find themselves in a position where they are forced to fend for themselves, they learn the kindness of strangers often hides the worst sort of danger.
Our two leads are, of course, extremely sympathetic characters. Brighton is a sweet young woman who has behaved with grace, dignity and generosity in dark circumstances. Angel is the same; a kind, clever soul trapped within a body which has others treating him as though he is a freak and something to be frightened of. In spite of that, he is a tender hearted, loving person. These two delightful, lovely souls also make a charming couple as they slowly fall in love. As their love and friendship grows, they bring out the best in each other and there is such depth to their care and concern that it is wonderful to behold.
But honestly, that was one of only two things wonderful about this book for me. The author is relentless in her use of tragic history, spending pages highlighting the worst of humanity and quickly glossing over any positive events that occur in the tale. Her two innocent protagonists are victims and while they lash out at times, both verbally and physically, they are for the most part docile regarding their exploitation and debasement. Even the kind people in the tale are presented passively – they don’t go looking for folks to help nor are they attempting to right the wrongs of the world, but if someone comes along who needs their aid, they give it.
The second positive is that all of this is done with truly remarkable craftsmanship. The prose is lyrical, the characterizations solid and consistent, and if the plotting contains some conveniences, that is to be expected given that even real life contains moments of luck and grace. The history is thorough and detailed, with the author painting a vivid picture of the importance of many of the battles waged for equity in the past century.
This is an Inspirational, and God is mentioned but those references tend to be opaque and imaginative. For example, towards the end of the story, Brighton sees a crucifix and says of the man on it, “He had restraints in the shape of nails, and his face was so sad. I couldn’t help him from his captivity, but I wondered if he could help me from mine.” These types of threads are woven throughout the story, along with brief mentions of prayer. While there are some scenes centered around a church, the religious leanings of the characters are kept rather open-ended.
At one point Brighton speaks of the past and says “People are people regardless of diagnosis. They [others] need to see that so that it [the events at Riverside] will never happen again.” I think that sums up the theology of The Bright Unknown. These things should never occur again. While this certainly isn’t an easy read, it’s good to be sad, uncomfortable and shocked every once in a while in order to remember all the good that the fight for social justice has wrought. I would have preferred a bit more of the activism and a bit less about why it was so absolutely necessary but that doesn’t change the fact that this is an excellent book with a crucial message.