House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is a debut novel and an historical fiction set in the late 19th century (Available December 27, 2016).
Oak Park, Illinois, 1875. Isabelle Larkin’s future—like that of every young woman—hinges upon her choice of husband. She delights her mother by becoming engaged to Gregory Gallagher, who is charismatic, politically ambitious, and publicly devoted. But Isabelle’s visions of a happy, profitable match come to a halt when she witnesses her fiancé commit a horrific crime—and no one believes her.
Gregory denies all, and Isabelle’s mother insists she marry as planned rather than drag them into scandal. Fearing for her life, Isabelle can think of only one escape: she feigns a mental breakdown that renders her mute, and is brought to Bellevue sanitarium. There she finds a friend in fellow patient Mary Todd Lincoln, committed after her husband’s assassination.
In this unlikely refuge, the women become allies, even as Isabelle maintains a veneer of madness for her own protection. But sooner or later, she must reclaim her voice. And if she uses it to expose the truth, Isabelle risks far more than she could ever imagine.
Weaving together a thread of finely tuned suspense with a fascinating setting and real-life figures, Sarah Barthel's debut is historical fiction at its most evocative and compelling.
Bellevue Sanitarium, Batavia, Illinois
The shadows from my flickering candle shifted against the rose wallpaper so rhythmically that I began to question if I actually belonged in this sanitarium. No matter how grand they became, I resolutely ignored the reflections. To acknowledge them would cost me more than I was prepared to pay.
As I did every evening, I sat on my bed with a copy of Jane Eyre. In vain I hoped to find answers through Jane and Bertha’s unfortunate fates, but no revelations came. They were the product of unfortunate circumstances…perhaps I was no better.
A slight shift in the room’s color made me look up. My breath caught in my throat.
My neighbor stood in the doorway. Her silence added to the stillness until it felt as if I’d implode. Her loose dark, grey hair was stark against her pale pink nightgown. Without her hoop and mounds of skirts, she looked slight, like half a woman. Yet, her presence grasped for my attention as if she were the President himself.
Her eyes met mine and they pierced me with sympathy. I shifted my gaze to the hallway. Surely at any moment, Nurse Penny would appear to return this intruder to her room.
But no one came.
Her nightgown shifted in the slight breeze. Every few moments she twisted her head and regarded me from a different angle. The silence grated on me as much as her presence frightened me.
Perhaps I should have demonstrated my insanity by screaming and pulling on my hair, but I was so tired of pretending. Besides, something about this woman told me that my act wouldn’t fool her.
After what felt like ages, she stepped over the threshold and into my room. Her stride was careful and deliberate. Her movements showed her age more than the grey in her hair did. She was old beyond her years.
“Speak to me, child,” she commanded.
I clutched the book to my chest as if it could shield me from my troubles. Even though she’d already attacked me once, I wanted her to like me.
“We all have our reasons for silence. Yours will end.” Her words made my heart race.
She didn’t know why I was here or why I remained mute, but she showed more empathy than Dr. Patterson had. Despite this, her kindness chilled me. I couldn’t allow myself to trust anyone. Trusting Gregory was how I got into this predicament. I refused to make the same mistake twice.
“If you need anything, you come see me. Dr. Patterson told me to watch out for you, and I intend to do my best. Understand?”
Unable to respond any other way, I nodded.
She tilted her head and read the title of my book. A smile pulled at her mouth. “Jane Eyre. There ought to be more heroines like her. She shaped her own destiny and let no man decide for her.” She smoothed a wrinkle out of my bedspread.
My mouth dropped open at her declaration. So many friends didn’t understand my attraction to Jane’s character. This woman, older than my mother, was a true kindred spirit. A bit of my determination crumbled.
She must have noticed my warming to her for she demanded, “Make room,” and sat beside me. I pulled my legs to my chest.
She took the book from my hand and flipped back to the beginning and read aloud, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed…”
Thus my friendship with Mary Lincoln began.
Copyright © 2016 Sarah Barthel.
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Sarah Barthel, being raised on classic films and old time musicals, isn’t surprised that she found her passion in writing historical fiction. She often says she was born out of time, but appreciates modern toothpaste and chocolate! Her hometown, just outside Chicago, is full of old-fashioned charm and serves as inspiration for much of her work. Before writing House of Silence, she drove past Bellevue Sanitarium often and wondered what life was like there for women like Mary Lincoln. After many years of wondering, Isabelle’s story was born. She lives with her two beautiful daughters and loving husband. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or www.Sarahebarthel.com.