The Back Building is Julie Dewey’s newest book and yet another reason that I enjoy her books so much. They always bring to light some important time in history and also to the people that lived during this long ago time. In The Back Building Julie tackles mental illness and the unfortunate way it is looked upon both in the past and even now in the present and takes us through one family’s battle with mental illness both in the past and in the present.
Iona Mueller comes from a wealthy family and to the outside eye certainly seems to have it all. Yet her mother keeps a fairly tight leash on her wanting her to only be a proper young lady and that included restricting what she could eat, not talking to her, or punishing her for not doing chores properly. Iona dealt with this by ceaselessly counting the steps she took, cleaning, and talking to her friend Hetty who helped her through her days. Needless to say this behavior was not considered proper or normal and Iona’s parents decide to send her to the Willard Asylum to hopefully reform and get better.
Iona is only fifteen when she enters the Willard Asylum and it’s such a foreign environment for her. She doesn’t feel like she belongs there. She isn’t crazy like these people. Sure she counts but who does that hurt? When her new roommate Cat arrives things change drastically for Iona and she tries running away. This only makes matters worse and she’s transferred to a much more secure ward. There she is subjected to hydrotherapy, tranquilizers, and even worse, beatings. Yet there were even worse places she could be and one of those was the back building. She had to make sure never to be put there. With the help of James, a young man she meets, they put together a plan to ensure that this never happens to Iona.
Fast forward to the future and we meet Jenna, a young girl, who is a descendant of Iona’s. Jenna too is suffering from mental illness and finds her life spiraling more and more out of control. Jenna’s family decides to trace their roots back to Iona to try and understand if Jenna’s battle with mental illness is in any way connected to Iona’s so many years ago.
The Back Building is a fascinating story. There is such a stigma attached to mental illness and I don’t understand why. So many suffer with it whether in a functioning or destructive form. There is nothing wrong with those who suffer and they need only our understanding and care. This novel brings to light that while our methods of treating mental illness have improved the stigma attached to it hasn’t all that much. Highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction and a really good story!