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Claire Manes’s well-written book is an intensely personal exploration of her family’s experience with leprosy in early twentieth-century Louisiana. Her book is less a social history of a disease than it is a granddaughter’s quest to reclaim her family’s secret past. “Our family story is that we have no family stories we tell,” writes Manes, a retired English professor whose work has appeared before in JAF. She is left to piece together the story of her grandfather, Edmond Landry (1891–1932) through a collection of letters he wrote while he was a patient in the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, from 1924–1932.
The book is a careful examination of this collection of surviving letters. The letters written by her grandfather pre-Carville form one chapter, giving the reader a sense of her grandfather before the leprosy. It provides a measure of comparison by which the reader is able to witness the devastating effects the disease has upon Landry’s personal identity. The letters have been converted from Landry’s handwriting to text and appear in their entirety in the book’s largest chapter. Manes organizes the letters in chronological order, followed by a brief nota bene (N.B.) from the author. Precise citations from these letters are found throughout the book, referencing various letters by the page numbers where they appear in the book. Despite the author’s directions, the story’s momentum is lost in this section. In places, it is bogged down by too much detail, as though the author chose to err on the side of accuracy at the expense of good storytelling. The letters would have been better placed in an appendix.
But it is the author’s introduction to an especially troubling letter that re-orients the [End Page 118] reader. The letter is one of only two surviving letters written by Landry to his wife (Manes’s grandmother), an 18-page, single-spaced typewritten letter so full of emotion that Manes and others in her family avoided it for many years. Manes notes how this letter in particular “forced [her] to accept not just mythical, idealized grandparents separated by fear and disease, but a man and a woman struggling across an abyss” (p. 89). It is this letter that lays bare the raw emotion of Landry’s anger, desperation, and deep resentment. The grief that bleeds through her grandfather’s words is painful to read as he attempts to sway his wife’s views of him and challenge the perception of the contagiousness of the disease.
Ironically, while the author successfully gives the reader a full picture of her grandfather, the author does not provide a satisfying portrait of her grandmother, Landry’s wife. Mrs. Landry’s silence and apparent refusals in the face of her husband’s tortured pleas come across as cold and uncaring. There is no written response or interview material that gives voice to Mrs. Landry, so her part in this painful relationship is left to supposition. The author explains that her grandmother was overcome by fear of the disease. The reader may speculate, however, that it did not appear to be the disease alone that kept them apart, and we are left to wonder about her grandmother’s true feelings.
The role the disease plays in “Carville,” as the hospital is known, is profound. In this setting, biomedical knowledge and folk belief seamlessly blend to influence social practices in ways that perpetuated fear and stigma. From a public health perspective, fear of the disease led people to hide symptoms and delay early intervention and prevention. Leprosy was so feared and stigmatized that those diagnosed were literally forced into isolation, stripped of their rights, and effectively separated from their families and communities. Sadly, Manes’s grandfather would die years before leprosy was found to be only minimally contagious and treatable with standard antibiotics.