Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dawn O'Hara: The Girl Who Laughed

Finished Dawn O'Hara: The Girl Who Laughed by Edna Ferber. This was Ferber's first novel, published in 1911. Dawn is a New York newspaper woman who wears herself to a frazzle, working for her own keep and to pay for the care of her husband, who is institutionalized as a result of alcoholic insanity. When her health finally fails, her sister Nora comes to care for her and to take her back to Michigan, where Nora lives with her husband and children.

Under Nora's watchful eye and the administration of many eggnogs, Dawn recovers. Through Nora and her husband, Dawn meets Dr. Ernst Von Gerhard, a German doctor who is brought in to consult on Dawn's case. Ernst helps Dawn find a place to live and a job with a Milwaukee newspaper. The slower pace of this metropolis makes it possible for Dawn to return to work and to begin writing her novel. She takes a room in a German boarding house where she meets many interesting and quirky characters. She also is befriended by Blackie, the paper's cantankerously generous sports writer. Among this cast of supportive and benevolent characters, Dawn thrives. Nora's husband Max takes over the keep of Dawn's invalid husband, Peter, and all correspondence with the institution where he resides. Nora is left free to live without that strain, except, that she is not free to love another.

Over time her friendship with Ernst grows to be so much more. This feeling is mutual. As much as Nora hopes to never see her dangerous and manipulative husband ever again, she is unwilling to divorce him while he is unable to speak for himself. Then, after ten years of treatment, Peter's doctors feel that he is ready to return to normal life. After he is released from the asylum, he tracks Nora down and demands that they pick up their marriage where they left off. Nora is terrified by this, but her two champions, Blackie and Ernst come to her rescue. In the end it becomes obvious that Peter's doctors were wrong. He is just as mad as he ever was.

I so enjoyed this book. I have always loved Ferber's writing. She has a way of inserting the reader into a cultural atmosphere that suspends all disbelief. This book hit a lot of painful chords for me. As the ex-wife of a mentally ill alcoholic, the story of her broken health and the terror at dealing with him after finding peace and happiness for herself hit very close to home. This created a strong personal connection for me with Dawn and her story. I feel sure that I will read this book again some time in the future.

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