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Suffering Mental Illness in Post-WWII America - an Editorial Review of "Driftless"

Author Bio:

Ardys Brevig Richards was born in southeastern MN, the last of seven siblings. She was raised on the family dairy farm in the beautiful Driftless Area. Ardys was one of the final eleven students to attend a one-room country schoolhouse, the last of its kind operating in the state. She played drums in country/rock 'n roll/old-time music bands throughout her undergraduate years at UW–La Crosse in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

After graduating with a Masters of Social Work from Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey in 1982, she returned to the Midwest. In addition to a professional career, she enjoyed performing in musicals at Ye Olde Opera House in her hometown of Spring Grove, Minnesota.

Ardys worked professionally for thirty-two years, first as a licensed mental health therapist in Decorah, IA and Mankato, MN. She was a Juvenile Court Initake in Menomonie, WI and fiinally, a medical social worker in St Paul and Duluth, MN. Much of her life's work was devoted to the families of children and adults with congenital disabilities, acquired brain injuries,and other neurological disorders.

With her husband and crew, Ardys raced sailboats on Lake Superior for thirteen years before early retirement in 2015. The couple then moved aboard their 43' sailboat, "Northern Star," to sail the East Coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. They returned to land life in late 2019. The couple has four adult children between them. They now make their home in Memphis, Tennessee where they are kept in line by a Border Collie named Chet.

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Editorial Review:

I recognize some of the soldiers. They were boys in school with me. It hurts to see them again as wounded, scarred men. I'm glad they have survived, but I don't want to date them though I've been asked many times. I understand that the men don't want to remember what they've seen. I see that hollow place inside of them where everything good and innocent has been leeched away. I know that they want to crawl out of the dark hole where they were trapped, in faraway places. I understand them because there's a dark hole in me too.

This is a remarkable story of Minnesotan life in the 1940s to early 50s, a time when soldiers are returning from WWII suffering from debilitating symptoms of PTSD. While modern medicine at the time was just getting a grasp on mental illness for soldiers who appeared stuck in their horrific memories, with a few doctors really wanting to understand the disorder, for the vast majority, the mental health field was antiquated and relied on terrible methods of treatment for suffering patients.

When Caroline, the young wife of a Minnesotan farmer, Arvid, falls victim to an obvious bout of postpartum depression, along with other things looming in her past, and turns against her own small newborn baby, imagining the child as the devil incarnate, Arvid is forced to make a painful decision and commit his wife to a mental asylum to undergo treatments for her diagnosed schizophrenia. Caroline's life unfolds before the reader's eyes in an incredibly profound way, traveling this path of mental illness in a shockingly detailed and real way that the reader is left wondering how the author maintained the sense of clarity in depicting such a believable character. Ms Richards research is very evident and deserves a round of applause for crafting such an incredible story without dumping a massive amount of medical jargon on the reader. There are so many stories that this book relates to, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”, “Girl, Interrupted”, and “Beloved”.

Finally, the massive grounds of Rochester State Hospital loomed ahead. Arvid caught a glimpse of the plaque by the front entrance. Rochester State Hospital was already 70 years old and looked every bit of that. He'd read Frankenstein in high school and when he saw the place, decided that the monster would have been created in such a place like that. His breath caught in his throat. What kind of man leaves his wife in such a place? And what kind of man would take his wife home knowing what she'd done and said. A mother who called her own baby “evil”.

But Driftless goes deeper than even the mental illness. The characters are so well-rounded and real, from the devoted husband whose routine of life at the farm keeps him grounded and focused, to the tireless love of his mother and Caroline's mother-in-law who sacrifices her own life to take care of Arvid and her two granddaughters while Caroline is recuperating at the hospital. And the story goes deep into the heart of childhood trauma, of life as an orphan, and a time period in American history when unwanted pregnancy was quickly hushed up and girls were “sent away” to give birth or married in a hurry so as to prevent any scandal in the family, especially in upper-class society. Ms Richards renders a perfectly balanced story which is rich in the sweet details of nostalgic Norwegian-American life while traversing down into the darkness of depression, and she does this with a gifted skill worthy of praise. She even gives us a glimpse into her own childhood by sprinkling pictures throughout the novel, small snapshots which she used, no doubt, as a framework in developing this story. Very clever, indeed.

Caroline's pain emerges throughout her narrative of life in the hospital, and the characters surrounding her, other patients suffering from a vast array of illnesses, are fleshed out in a brilliant way, each woman with their own uniquely described affliction, and every nuance, word, and phrase chosen with care in helping the reader see them as real. Many times tears stung my eyes and my heart wrenched as if I read a medical report on actual living people... and brought my mind to realize that this very thing happened to many women and men during that time period in history when insulin shock treatment, medically induced comas, and lobotomies were performed as standard treatment options for those rendered as “insane”.

This is an emotionally charged novel, and one you will not be able to put down as you truly feel the suffering that not only Caroline experiences but the pain, and sometimes embarrassment, that her husband struggles through in this tightly-bound community where one small whisper of gossip could ignite a fire. His wife being committed to a mental hospital casts all sorts of shadows across him, and he deals with his own doubts as a man, as a husband, and as a father... yet, his patience is touching as he deals with Caroline, wanting desperately for them to return to a normal life, while trying to maintain his normal routines for the sake of his girls. And not only that, but the passages of small details, such as this next one showing a mid-west thunder storm, are crafted in such a way that the reader can “see, feel, and smell” the story, which shows Ms Richards skill as a writer.

It's a deafening sound, a whip of striking the earth with a flash of lightning, illuminating the room. We, the four of us seated and holding hands, become in that instant the brightest of all things, lit up like the figures on a roll of negative film. Arvid's hair and beard glow. I leap off my chair and try to swallow an involuntary scream. The angry clouds I watched as we drove to the farm, unzip and dump a torrent of water on us.

For a beautifully written book about courage, faith, endurance, love, family, friendship, suffering, depression, and ultimately, hope, then this is the “must-read” book for you.


“Driftless by Ardys Richards receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and the “Highly Recommended” award for excellence.



Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell

Such an important subject!

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