The Outward Room by Millen Brand

I end up reading a lot of books for this blog. Kim and I both do, obviously. Some really impress me, and some not so much. Sometimes I even feel that I’m impressed with a book merely because I’m supposed to be, having heard enough to regard it a certain way by preprogramming. The Outward Room by Millen Brand is a little different though. This book struck me as one of the better books I’ve read for this blog in a while, and I’d never heard of it before. It doesn’t seem like that many people have these days.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Peter Cameron.)

In The Outward Room, a young woman in the 1930’s has spent the last seven years in a mental hospital, having broken down when she witnessed her brother die in a car accident. Frankly, she regards herself as having died as well…and given how prison-like the hospital is she doesn’t seem entirely wrong. She’s pretty much alone, particularly since she regards her parents as responsible for her brother’s death as they were the ones who asked him to drive their deathtrap of a car. Her doctor is useless at best:

“Here it is, then. At the center of your dream, clearly, you became your mother, you were putting yourself in her place in relation to your father. The letters, the ‘better half,’ everything shows it. It’s just another proof of something I’ve told you, that almost all children go through a period when they fall in love with the parent, the one of the opposite sex. It’s an old story now, well-known. And being in love with one parent, children are jealous of the other—you were jealous of your mother. During the period of your childhood represented by this dream, you were in love with your father, but not as much as at first. Already your father seemed inferior to you. Later, you substituted your brother for him, who was stronger and took after your mother[.]”

I mean, regardless of whether or not Freud had an accurate idea of how people form, this doctor has been unable to do a damn thing for this woman and her condition resulting from her trauma. He hasn’t been able to make any impact on her mental health in seven years. Facing all of this, she escapes to New York to make a life for herself (under the name ‘Harriet Demuth’) in the middle of the depression with only $5 she gets by pawning a ring her brother gave her before he died.

Of course, it’s difficult for her. This is the depression we’re talking about…it’s hard for everybody, sane or not. Her money runs out. She has nowhere to stay, no food, and no money. Lacking any other option, she happens into an all nigh cafeteria and gets very lucky:

At a nearby table a man was sitting. She saw him and her eyes gradually cleared. He had on a gray workingman’s shirt, open at the collar; the shirt was not too clean. Sweat had given the shirt the shape of his shoulders which were strong-looking. From the open collar she could see how his neck began, thick, strong. The oval of his head was outlined by black hair and a two-day growth of dark beard. Through the beard, she could see the case of his features; they were hard, yet young. His eyes were kind; they seemed to have understanding. They looked at each other in silence, waiting. Then—

“Come on, get going.”

The man got up and came over.

“What’s the trouble?” he said.

A man, evidently the night manager of the cafeteria, said, “She isn’t buying anything.” “Let her alone,” he said. “I’ll get her something.” The manager hesitated and then walked away.

This is John, a machine-shop worker. He takes her in, offers her help when she wants it. Aided by John’s quiet kindness, Harriet begins to grow again. She works, makes friends, and falls in love. She gradually starts to emerge from her death-like condition. Extended a little humanity, she does for herself what her Freudian doctor could never do. She lives.

I love when a book can be this plain and this quiet while still being highly emotionally evocative. The Outward Room is masterful really. The book doesn’t ride only off the emotional force tied to the underlying subject matter, though that is there. It doesn’t pull cheap tricks either. The words are just set out there, plain. Somehow that all explodes inside the reader as the words are read.

The Outward Room might not be one of my most favorite books, but I was highly impressed. I’m really surprised I haven’t heard more people talking about it. It deserves to be talked about.

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