It’s 1871 in Ashwell, Massachusetts and Samuel Hood decides to convert his barn into a progressive school for young girls. He’s planning to teach the students himself together with his daughter, Caroline, and friend, David Moore.
Eliza Pearson Bell is one of the girls who express interest in becoming a student. Coincidentally, she is also the daughter of Miles Pearson – the man Samuel loathes the most. Caroline and David decide Eliza will bring good publicity to the school but for very different reasons.
Everything is going well for the Trilling Heart School (named after the strange red birds that re-appeared in the area around that time) until Eliza gets sick. It becomes even more mysterious when the rest of the girls gets the same illness. No one can figure out what’s gotten into them or how they got it. Samuel calls his physician friend, George Hawkins in the hopes that he can bring light into this case.
Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson is dark and haunting. It is slow-paced and serious, curious as it is rich with symbolism. Caroline holds a lot of promise as the heroine of this book, but she fails. It is so ironic how the school that wants little girls to grow up as critical thinkers is the very same school that will shut educated women down. It is so disappointing to see a strong and knowledgeable woman like Caroline defeated by a patriarchal society. But maybe the real lesson here is to keep on fighting because back then, our sisters could not. Trigger warnings include epilepsy, death of a parent, implicit malicious acts, adultery, and sexual abuse.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Doubleday for giving me a copy in exchange for an honest review.