Leprosy and Second Chances

Author: Amanda Skenandore

Mirielle leads a dissipated life, despite the luxury of being married to a Hollywood star and living in extravagance. She drinks to forget, to forget the toddler she recently lost, to cloud the memories and silence the nagging blame. Life, as bad as it is for her, is about to get a lot worse. A routine doctor’s visit for a small, white spot on her hand changes everything.

Overnight, Mirielle is locked in a Spartan hospital room, then ferried on a dirty train car to a remote part of Louisiana where Carville, America’s only leper colony, awaits her. At first, suspended behind the  barbed wires, deprived of even her true name for the fear of ruining her husband’s career, Mirielle thinks there has been a mistake. There must be. She is nothing like the deformed, depressed people she meets here. But as days stretch into months and escape attempts leave her broken and bleeding, she slowly shifts to hope for a cure, even as she worries about her two young daughters, one still just an infant, and the infrequent messages from a distanced husband. As pain grows into pragmatism, as a single-minded focus on finding a cure dissolves into the daily minutia of making a new life here, Mirielle grows from the selfish, cultured woman she was into something more, something both harder and softer.

The Second Life of Mirielle West is a haunting historical fiction novel, focusing on the life of a leper colony where people from all over the nation, of every race and class, are forcefully quarantined, trying to stay alive and create a new world. It’s a sometimes beautiful world, but often a sad and haunting one. A world where there is love and death, friendship and hope, failed medical experimentation and a slow eradication of self. Here, Mirielle mixes with the other lepers, from the lively Frank with his ruined hands and secret ways; to a 12 year old girl, abandoned and angry who at first finds an enemy and then a friend in Mirielle; to Irene, an older woman who brings joy and hope to a bleak world and convinces Mir

ielle to live again. Here, surrounded by nuns who have transformed into nurses, Mirielle starts her second life, unwillingly, but in a beautiful testament to human fortitude and the nature of human dignity, despite circumstances, ostracism, and societal cruelty.

Author Amanda Skenandore tantalizes readers with her own medical insight, explaining the virus as it was known, walking us through the horrors of the steam cabinet that was once promised to be a great cure, and discussing transmissibility. As a registered nurse, the authenticity of Skenandore’s knowledge adds to the narrative as readers, alongside a shocked Mirielle, learn about a disease that has haunted and terrified people for hundreds of years. We learn what the virus can and cannot do and, worse yet, what it has often cost someone to get the terrible label of “leper.”

As we learn about the disease and the new place – so much lower than the haughty world Mirielle is used to – we watch our character transform from a know-it-all snob to the true person she is underneath all the pain and fear. It’s a well rendered, believable transformation, one that takes a flawed character and yet makes us deeply empathize, caring for her, shaking our head at times, at other times crying and cringing along with her. Mirielle is very human and the added story of her toddler son’s death weaves nicely into her own realizations about life and second chances (however horrible and imperfect they may be.) While the historical and medical background is impeccable, and interesting in-and-of-itself (remember, we are in a leper colony in the roading twenties after all!), the character arc of Mirielle, how she stays true to who she is and yet also grows, is what takes the story and makes it unforgettable and ultimately impacting.

Wooden cottage built around 1923 at the Public Health Service hospital for patients with leprosy or Hansen’s disease in Carville, Louisiana, in 1968

Whereas leprosy today is (hopefully) treated with less stigma and more knowledge, the story, with its utterly perfect epilogue, still leaves us thinking about how our fear and misunderstanding can so easily lead us to ostracize the unfortunate, to cast aside our humanity in order to save ourselves. It is all too human, all too understandable, this baseness that dwells in us all. Amanda Skenandore does a fantastic job of telling an engaging character drama and bringing this greater, universal theme to life as well. In an age now marked by its own brand of plague, we must once again think, where does our desire to protect ourselves at all costs intersect with our humanity? How and when do we go too far, and what happens to those whom we shun, locked inside the fear of a disease and the complete dislocation of the world and society they had known? Leper colonies in America may be a thing of the past – but what has replaced them?

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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