William Lyon’s past forced him to become someone he isn’t. Conflicted and unable to maintain the charade, he separates from his wife and takes a job as caretaker at a former mental hospital. Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum was the largest mental hospital in California for well over a century, but it now stands empty. William thinks the decrepit institution is the perfect place to finish his dissertation and wait for his divorce to become final. In town, William meets Colby Anderson, who minds the local store and post office. Unlike William, Colby is cute, upbeat, and flamboyantly out. Although initially put off by Colby’s mannerisms, William comes to value their new friendship, and even accepts Colby’s offer to ease him into the world of gay sex.
William’s self-image begins to change when he discovers a tin box, hidden in an asylum wall since the 1940s. It contains letters secretly written by Bill, a patient who was sent to the asylum for being homosexual. The letters hit close to home, and William comes to care about Bill and his fate. With Colby’s help, he hopes the words written seventy years ago will give him courage to be his true self.
Prepare for an amazing story. This book is not light hearted, though it has one very lighthearted character. It’s a heart-wrenching story of two heroes.
Hero #1: William has come to live & work at the Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum. It’s defunct now and they need someone to basically keep an eye on the place. He figures it will be a good place to write his dissertation since he recently divorced his wife and doesn’t really know what he wants to do.
Hero #2: Bill, an inmate of the hospital, tells his story through letters that William finds and reads. From the few letters we see, his personality and his trials come through so strongly – as well as his ability to keep a positive outlook even in the face of every horrible thing the doctors and nurses do to him.
Bill’s story pushes William to open himself up to who he has always been and forces him to really figure out what he wants in life. And part of what he wants is Colby, the only other gay man in town.
While there is a small romance aspect between William and Colby, I think the story’s strength is in Bill’s story and William’s. Fielding does such a remarkable job of letting us get to know and get tied to Bill through letters which start out short and then become longer as the book goes on. I quickly felt like I knew Bill and was rooting for him. But this was the time of WWII and men who were sent into asylums for homosexuality at that time were not likely to have happy endings.
But Fielding takes that and turns the entire story into one amazing ending.
I have to say though. While I don’t hate Johnny like Colby did, I so would like to know what happened with him. Just one of the mysteries we’ll never know…
The only reason it is 4 stars rather than 5 is I got confused and kicked out of the story several times due to timing. Figuring out when things were happening and the time jumps confused me.