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Brooke's Pick: The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore

Exiled to rural Louisiana in the 1920s after being diagnosed with leprosy, socialite Mirielle, unable to accept her new reality, stays away from other residents until she finds both community and purpose and must choose to stay or return to a life she isn't sure she has anymore.

Although I was born on the bayou and have lived in Louisiana my entire life, it wasn't until recently that I learned about the national leprosarium just up the river from me in Carville, Louisiana. I first heard about the leper colony through an episode of the podcast Criminal, and the subject of Carville hasn't arisen in my life again until Amanda Skenandore's new novel, The Second Life of Mirielle West, was published. I am glad that Skenandore is drawing attention to this little known piece of Louisiana history and is reimagining life at Carville for those who were unaware that a leper colony existed here in the Bayou State.

The Second Life of Mirielle West starts off rather horrifyingly. Mirielle West, socialite and wife to a silent film star, is admitted to a local California hospital for what she believes to be a mild skin condition, but she soon comes to find is leprosy. It's the 1920s and a cure for leprosy is long-off. Anyone diagnosed with the condition must be quarantined from the public, which is exactly the situation Mirielle finds herself in. She is whisked off to the swamps of Louisiana, where she is to live her life at the Carville leper colony for the interminable future.

Many of us living in modern day America likely never even considered the implications of quarantine until the COVID pandemic shook up the entire world. However, in the times of leprosy, it wasn't uncommon, and as bad as our COVID quarantines seem to be, they are nothing compared to what those diagnosed with leprosy went through. I was absolutely alarmed to learn that upon diagnosis, Mirielle was to be separated from her family, quite possibly to never see them again. Just think about how drastically people's lives could be altered with a leprosy diagnosis, which carried great shame, fear, and disgust with it. Once you were diagnosed, your life would never be the same again.

Which is what we see happen with Mirielle in this novel. Upon arriving at Carville, Mirielle refuses to accept her diagnosis, and tries to devise ways to get herself back home to the life to which she is accustomed, but her attempts soon prove to be futile. She is at Carville to stay. The Second Life of Mirielle West follows the title character through her time at Carville, as she becomes acclimated to the new environment she finds herself in. We also learn about some of the promising medical breakthroughs that were being trialed at Carville in hopes of finding a cure. But most importantly of all, we meet the people of Carville, the men, women, children, fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons from all over the country who were pulled away from their families and their former lives to live among people of their own kind in an isolated corner of Louisiana.

The Second Life of Mirielle West is a thought-provoking read that is sure to drum up a lot of interest in the history of leprosy in the United States. This is where this novel is strongest - in shining a spotlight on the trials and tribulations that those who were afflicted with leprosy faced, and how they had to create a new life for themselves at Carville. Where I didn't love this novel as much is in the storytelling. I did not find the narration to be entirely compelling or as heart-wrenching as I would expect it to be, given the situation. The story itself fell a little flat, never going deep enough or emotional enough to satisfy that part of me that ached in sadness for the people of Carville.

Availability: eBook in cloudLibrary

Rating: *** Stars (I liked it) Reviewer: Brooke, Public Relations Librarian




GENRE: Historical Fiction

LOCATION: Los Angeles, California; Louisiana

TIME PERIOD: 1920s; Between the Wars (1918 - 1939)

SUBJECT: Communities; Leprosy; Life Change Events; Married Women; People with Leprosy; Quarantine; Shame; Social Isolation; Socialities