Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf ~ Featuring Rachel Simon and Victoria Sweet

By Lynn Willoughby

The Story of Beautiful Girl ~ Rachel Simon

In Pennsylvania in 1968 Lynnie is locked away in an institution – the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. She was born with a developmental disability and lived at home until she was six. When she was taken to the School, the stench, the mushy food, the truly insane drive her to silence. She doesn’t ever speak.

An African American deaf man, many years her senior, is also at the school. He does odd jobs, gardening and helps Lynnie in the laundry. He also doesn’t speak.

However, as their friendship develops, they do learn to communicate and eventually escape over the walls of the school. They find refuge in the farmhouse of a retired schoolteacher, Martha. But the couple is not alone!

The protagonists in this story never quit seeking, never stop striving for dignity and freedom.

It is a beautiful and heartbreaking book about people living on the margins of society. It may be a difficult read for those families who are dealing themselves with handicapped members of their family, but it really is a story of hope. There are people who are brutal and egotistical but there are also so many who do not judge, who treat everyone with kindness. The horror of humanity is right beside its beauty and splendour, and as the years pass we see some hope for more tolerance for those who are unique. Simon, herself, has a sibling with a disability, so this novel is very personal.

  • Riding the Bus With My Sister
  • The House on Teacher’s Lane

……and several others

God’s Hotel ~ Victoria Sweet

This work of non-fiction is compulsively readable as Dr S writes about the twenty years she practised medicine at San Francisco’s old Laguna Honda Hospital – “…a giant chronic care facility for the city’s destitute and ill.”

Those who are in charge of health care in a hospital, a city or a country need to spend time as a patient at “God’s Hotel”!! “But who interrupts cowboys in the midst of a stampede?” That is how Dr S sees the challenge of trying to change priorities in hospital administration.

At Laguna Honda patients could live for months or years- as long as it takes to become well. Dr Sweet based her personal regimens of health care on the remarkable 12 century German nun, Hildegard of Bingen. She uses this framework for understanding the body and it’s links to the four basic elements – water, air, earth and fire, to the four seasons and especially to the passing of time. Hildegard believed “It was by their qualities that plants counteract the effects of the seasons and many of her prescriptions rely on those qualities for their medicinal effect.”

Given that most people lived in small rural communities, dealing daily with horticultural and agricultural needs that often related to health care, and remedies actually WORKED, Dr S believes that Hildegard’s holistic methods contain a lot of validity. Post modern medicine depends on so many of these remedies, based on a gardener’s point of view, plus cleanliness, good food, safety and time. Hildegard’s premise was that each body wanted to be “well”. Dr Sweet came to passionately believe this also, and that is why practising medicine at God’s Hotel was such a good fit.

But not all the residents believed in the “monastic” way. There was smoking, drinking, drug dealing, poker playing, sex in secluded corners and a lot of laughter. But over and over, Dr Sweet demonstrates, with actual case histories, that a sick body takes time to heal, a sick mind takes even longer, and in the elderly all of this takes longer still.
She shows us over and over how doctors need the time to “sit with their patients, to think, to read, to consult, to catch their own mistakes”. In fact, they need to often move like an ancient nun in her garden. She believes the return to health in no hurry would result in far less consumer misery and far fewer medical mistakes.

This is a great read. I highly recommend it.

Who Knew?

Hildegard was placed in a nunnery in 1106 at the age of eight. Before her death, she wrote many texts and documented a variety of medical practices and home remedies that still have a broad base in medicine today, especially for injuries such as burns, fractures, dislocations and cuts. Her hallmark was to emphasize the vital connection between the “green” health of the natural world, and the holistic health of the human person, the patient.

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