It's 1960, and Elizabeth has a good life. A husband who takes care of her, two healthy children, a farm in the Forties Settlement. But Elizabeth is slowly coming apart, her reality splintering. She knows she will harm her children, wants to harm her children, wants to be stopped from harming her children. She doesn't sleep, becomes incoherent. Elizabeth is taken away.
We rejoin her in 1975, "well" once again, living in a group home and desperately trying to fill in the enormous gaps electric shock therapy has left in her memory. She remembers five words from her past and knows they are significant, but their meaning is slippery and she can't grasp more. She knows that Jewel and Jacob are her children, though she can't picture their faces, and more than anything, she longs to find them and explain that she never meant to leave for so long.
Shifting through time and points of view, acclaimed author Laura Best's first novel for adults allows us to see the ripple effects of mental illness and its treatment in the mid-twentieth century. Good Mothers Don't is a moving exploration of illness, memory, and how we fight for who we love.
About the author
Laura Best has had over forty short stories published in literary magazine and anthologies. Her first young adult novel, Bitter Sweet, was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People. Her middle grade novel Flying with a Broken Wing was named one of Bank Street College of Education's Best Books of 2015, and it's follow-up, Cammie Takes Flight, was nominated for the 2018 Silver Birch Award. Her most recent middle grade book, a prequel to the Cammie series, The Family Way, will be released in Spring 2021. Her first novel for adults, Good Mother Don't, was published in 2020. She lives in East Dalhousie, Nova Scotia, with her husband, Brian. Visit laurabest.wordpress.com
Excerpt: Good Mothers Don't (by (author) Laura Best)
I am well now.
When the pink dawn draws near to my bedroom window I take comfort in those words. For a long time I wouldn't have been able to make that claim, but now, if someone were to ask, "How are you, Elizabeth?" I could reply, "I'm very well, thank you," and I'd be right, and could show proof if need be. Still, there are times when I'm uncertain about that claim—when I fail to remember something so simple, or when a kernel of fear sprouts in my chest, sending out gnarly vines that spread far and wide, or when a whispered thought comes into my head when I hadn't been thinking of anything in particular at the time. The hospital says I'm well and so does the doctor who signed my release forms. They said that more than five years ago, and no one in their right mind would argue their own wellness when it's been clearly stated as fact, and neither should I.
They released me—the same authorities who declared me well—when dandelion seeds were blowing in the wind. There was a field of them along the route we took the day I came to Harmony House. I hadn't seen a dandelion for years, let alone a field full of them; soft grey balls of fluff trembling in the wind, their downy pips flying out across the air. I smiled and imagined that I might like to chase after them had we not been going at such a speed that I couldn't cry out for the car to be stopped.
That would not be the behaviour of someone who is well.
Wellness brings with it a certain responsibility, a promise not to act in a particular way or to say things of an inappropriate nature. So I watched and imagined and smiled until we were well past the field of dandelions, with Mrs. Weaver none the wiser.
"You can go home," the doctor said the day I was declared well. He was smiling as if this suggestion would have me leaping for joy. Home was a word I hadn't uttered in years; I feared for the longest while no such word existed for me. Or maybe it did exist in some strange, out-of-the-way place, one no one would tell me about. For sure it was some closely guarded secret and, somehow, intended for my own good.
"Where is home?" I said, sitting across from the doctor. I looked down and stopped myself from fiddling with the hem of my dress. I wondered if he knew more than he was letting on. He was a young man, too young to be in charge of my life, yet I accepted what he said even with the reservations I felt inside. They would send me home no matter where that home was. It was time to release the secret they'd been keeping from me for all these years.
"You're ready to re-enter the world, Elizabeth. That's all you need to know at this point."
His words caused my knees to tremble, and I crossed my legs to tame the uneasiness hammering away inside me. I didn't want the doctor to see how jumpy this made me in case he reversed his declaration of my wellness. His smile didn't wane, but neither did he look directly at me, as if he didn't want to see that far into the future—my future. The future that suddenly seemed murky and undefined. What was waiting for me in this future he spoke of? Even he didn't seem to have the answer to that.
"Someone will make all the arrangements. No need for you to worry about any of it," he said before he left me that day. I spent the next few weeks wondering about this someone and the arrangements they were making for me to go home.
Home. I had a home one time, one that hadn't been arranged. I must have. Everyone does. Step by step we build our lives with every choice we make, every thought we think, everything we feel and all the people we encounter. But that life, my life, was gone. I had no idea where. Places cannot stop existing. Yet it seemed that home, or at least my home, had done just that. Now there was nothing but a vague sense of familiarity lurking deep within me, a tangle of stale memories that I fought hard to remember. Flashes and flickers, small bits of the past, moved like static in my brain as I waited to start my life over again. And I began to wonder just how important those flashes and flickers might eventually prove to be. Some nights I couldn't shut them off. I'd toss and turn and wrestle the unknown, certain that something, or someone, would prevent me from ever seeing home.
This home the doctor spoke of became Harmony House, on a quiet back street in a little town not far from Halifax; a new start with freedoms I could only have dreamt about from inside the hospital walls. Home was a place to eat and sleep and watch TV, a place to breathe in the wide-open spaces, with trips into town and some money in my purse. And there was an old woman, the occupant of the bed on the other side of the room, who had been there for several years before my arrival.
"Mrs. Zimmer has her ways, but you'll get used to her soon enough," said Mrs. Weaver as we pulled up the driveway to Harmony House. "She means well." She left me standing in the middle of the room without a clue as to what I should do next. Setting my suitcase on the empty bed, I looked toward my roommate.
"Hello," I said with a smile she didn't return. Her mouth was pulled into a scowl and her flabby arms were folded in front of her. She turned her head and stared directly at me. I felt like an alien from a distant planet, a being with three eyes and a pair of horns sticking out from my head.
"Sal croaked just the other night," she said as I put my things in the dresser that had my name on it. "Stiff as a poker in the morning when they came to wake her. They just changed the sheets before you got here. The bed's probably still warm. We shared this room for four long years," she said, stretching out those last three words to indicate how miserable those years had been for her. She finished her speech by adding, with what seemed like a fair bit of satisfaction, "She always had a lot of gas." Raising a bushy eyebrow, she added, "You're not gassy, are you?"
Since the declaration of my wellness, I've contemplated my illness as many times as one can consider something they have little memory of. I'm uncertain as to when I became ill, what time of year, or even the year itself; whether dandelions were blooming or coloured leaves were hanging on the trees. I like to imagine it might have been in the cold of winter, a time when nature pulls back her hand, tired of making the flowers bloom and the grass grow; a time of rest. Certainly not in spring, with small shoots popping up from the ground, new life emerging. Perhaps I went to sleep one night fully aware of my life, but then entered a whole new realm of existence, a corridor that led me into a world different from the one I'd known all along. Or I might have been put under a fairy spell, transported to another land, stripped bare of my life, my memories stolen.
But I am well now, and all that is childlike thinking, hardly plausible explanations for the life I've lost.
So much of my life is now made up of uncertainties. But I've been told there is nothing unique in that. The only certainty in life is life's uncertainty. Sometimes in order for us to get to that place of wellness, things must be sacrificed. Life is a trade-off, a juggling of people, places, and events, maybe even the disappearance of time and memory if I were to make a guess. Isn't it only right that we lose some things along the way? I'm told even the most experienced juggler will drop a ball or two; I, who knows nothing about juggling, have managed to drop them all.
All these years and I still fight to push back the fear I sometimes feel, even with the declaration of my wellness. For a time it works and the panic quells for weeks, months, but eventually it floats to the top like a dead body at the rim of a lake. It's my own fault. I'll admit that much. An important aspect of wellness is the acceptance of the part we play in our own life's circumstance. If this hadn't happened, or If only I had done things differently. Perhaps if I had been stronger. I think all these things and wonder how much of it is true and how much is imagined, and it always comes back to the same irreversible thing.
A whispered thought as I drift into sleep.
The one thing that started it all.
You wouldn't have lost the life you had if you hadn't gone crazy.
"Laura Best ferries us along on a journey both compassionate and compelling. She explores the relationship between memory and self, between what we know and who we are. Her voices are clear and true and true and tough as hope. Here is a writer you can trust to carry you away and bring you safe home." —Linda Little, award-winning author of Scotch River and Grist
"Running deeper than the memory of home, only the body memory of maternal love survives the far-reaching ravages of mental illness which set a mother adrift from herself and her family in this crushingly beautiful novel. Laura Best shows the power of words to resurrect what gets lost to ideas and expectations of 'how a mother should be' and the stigma that surrounds all of this. This is a riveting, fearless book shot through with compassion. I loved it. I couldn't put it down." —Carol Bruneau, award-winning author of A Circle on the Surface
"Laura Best's remarkable talent radiates from every page of this novel, the story of Elizabeth and her journey to reclaim herself and her family after a long sickness. This is a riveting exploration of mental illness and the devastation it brings to the lives of women, children and the poor. Told through a chorus of voices, Best weaves a hypnotically beautiful and intimate narrative, capturing the anguish and joy in the everyday, and the otherworldly. An unlikely page turner replete with hushed surprises, unexpected crescendos, endless love and boundless vitality." —Christy Ann Conlin, bestselling author of Heave and Watermark