The Shape of the Atmosphere
by Jessica Dainty
Pandamoon Publishing

"The pressure bubbled inside. I felt as though I were at shock, my arms and legs ringing with electricity."

Life for Gertrude MacLarsen has never been particularly happy, living in the shadow of her older sister who is more mature and more of a social creature than she has ever been. Her mother is becoming increasingly detached and depressed, sequestering herself in the pantry with alcohol, but her father still makes Gertie feel special, spending time with her looking up at the stars and even watching as Sputnik floats across the night sky. The next day, Gertie’s 16th birthday, an accident happens that kills her father and her sister, leaving her with her mother. Both of them grieve in their own ways, drifting further apart from each other. When Gertie’s mom learns that she has been burning and cutting herself, she makes arrangements for Gertie to go live at the Willow Estate Sanatorium.

Her life changing in an instant, Gertie adopts a hard exterior to her situation and tries to adapt to her new life rather than resist it. She sees the opportunity as a way to reinvent her shy, antisocial self, albeit a strange one. Meeting the other women in her ward and adapting to her schedule is somewhat easy, but she hates the required therapy involving immersion in ice water or electroshock. In time, Gertie makes allies in both the patients and the staff and matures despite her continued mental turmoil over the dissolution of her family. At the same time, she also makes enemies after seeing the staff’s poor treatment of the black nurses in a different ward opens her eyes to the reality of her situation. Torn between her wants and needs, Gertie must balance becoming a woman, becoming independent, seeking justice for her fellow patients, and appearing adjusted enough to be able to leave the sanatorium.

Examining both personal mental health and issues of injustice and inequality across multiple lines, this was a jarring, powerful story to take in. One of the strongest elements of this story is that Gertrude tells it from the first-person, from her own perspective. As a result, it is easy to forget that she and her fellow patients are there for a reason. It’s easy to forget that Gertrude harms herself or has violent emotional outbursts, or that the people she interacts with daily have detachment issues, can’t take care of themselves, or only say the word “apples.” The lens in which the audience sees this story taking place makes them all human first and looks beyond their issues as often as possible. Even in a situation where Gertrude is not able to make many decisions for herself and must be constantly checked in on or have her privacy violated by the medical staff, the people in the story can easily take emotional precedence over the environs.

It would be easy to draw a comparison to a story like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest considering the similar locales and the same kind of balance between reality and the absurd, sanity and insanity presented in both this and the classic film. The key difference here is that readers will not find any inclination to root against Gertrude. Considering the coldness with which her mother treats her and her increasing loneliness prior to being institutionalized, it seems irrefutable that her new situation is better for her, at least in how she treats and is received by the other occupants of Willow Estate. The contradictions of her wanting to be out of her situation and having nowhere to go and nobody on the outside to be with are striking, and it becomes hard to argue that the sanatorium is not helping her, even if the therapy sessions and medical staff are not the catalysts for that growth. It is difficult to come away from a story like this without having your emotions stirred. The characterizations are so strong and the circumstances so memorable that the story practically begs to be devoured in just a few long reading sessions. Whether through dealing with depression, the loss of a loved one, or just the desire to belong among others, Gertrude’s disposition and motivations are easy to relate to and cheer for, even when she herself knows she is acting unwell. Using modern history as a backdrop and as a license for some of the more poignant cruelty makes this story all the more believable, but its strength lies in the depth of the characters presented throughout. Without them, this story wouldn’t leave such an indelible mark on its audience.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Return to USR Home