Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for The Storm at the Door
Katherine did not know Frederick very long before marrying him, and much of their courtship was conducted through letters exchanged while he was serving in the military during World War II. Before long, however, Frederick’s erratic behavior came to everyone’s attention and Katherine could not ignore it. Still, they had significant periods of happiness and their marriage produced four daughters, one of whom, Susie, serves as the story’s narrator.
By 1962, Frederick’s fragile mental state is further threatened by his heavy drinking. Following a cocktail party, Frederick acts out in a manner that comes to the attention of local law enforcement. Rather than face a potential criminal charge, a deal is struck: Frederick will be committed to Mayflower Home, a well-known mental institution, for what both he and Katherine believe will be a short stay. He will undergo therapy, but be back at home quickly and able to put the unpleasantness of that evening behind him.
Unfortunately, the terms of Frederick’s commitment dictate that he will not be released until the chief psychiatrist at Mayflower deems him ready to return home.
Meanwhile, Katherine is left to raise their daughters and manage her household on her own. With no income, she is dependent upon her father for financial assistance. As the days stretch into weeks and then months, her circumstances grow increasingly desperate.
Although The Storm at the Door is fiction, the story was inspired by the experiences of author Stefan Merrill Block’s grandparents. Initially, he set out to write a nonfiction account of their experiences, but eventually realized that he needed to free himself from the facts and let his imagination take charge of his writing.
The book’s focus shifts between Frederick’s experiences in Mayflower and what is happening back home to Katherine. In the early 1960’s, mental disabilities were viewed much differently than today. So the story is a fascinating glimpse at the manner in which the patients at Mayflower were dealt with by their treating physicians and staff, told convincingly as a result of Block’s extensive research on the topic. Several of Frederick’s fellow patients figure prominently in the story, their histories and destinies revealed in emotive detail. Frederick fights to maintain the cognitive clarity that is stolen from him by the drugs the staff force him to ingest each morning and afternoon. He tries to write in his journal without much success due to the haze that overtakes him after he has been medicated. The conditions at Mayflower bring into question whether the treatment provided can ever actually improve the patients’ conditions or if their institutionalization merely aggravates their compromised mental states. At first, he tries to find something beautiful and artistic in his predicament. But as more and more time passes and he is still not released, Frederick watches his fellow patients succumb either to their own mental disabilities, their circumstances or a combination thereof, and questions whether he can survive and return to the wife and family that are dimming in his memory.
The loss of my grandparents -– particularly the loss of my grandfather, whom I never met — has always haunted me. Since I was a kid, I’ve been imagining my grandparents; they were my first fictional characters. This book came out of an urgency I have always felt, the need to know them.~ Author Stefan Merrill Block
Meanwhile, Katherine copes with the couple’s daughters and attempts to maintain some semblance of normalcy for them, despite their father’s absence. She longs for her husband and the closeness they once shared, and ponders whether they will ever know such intimacy again. She contemplates which man is the real Frederick — the one she fell in love with or the one who now resides in an institution that will not allow her to visit him. Katherine was complicit in the plan to have Frederick committed for a short while in order to avoid the legal consequences of his conduct, spurred on by her family members who had long suspected that Frederick needed treatment. The longer Frederick remains confined at Mayflower, the more Katherine questions the wisdom of her decision and if her own behavior has in any way contributed to Frederick’s difficulties.
Eventually, Frederick is able to write to Katherine and, through the machinations of a rebellious staff member, his words reach Katherine. It is then that Katherine musters the courage to tangibly demonstrate her enduring love for her husband and fight for her family.
The Storm at the Door is a poignant, often heartbreaking look at the manner in which mental disabilities were handled in the 1960’s, as well as the impact that a family member’s mental disability can have upon that family for many decades and generations. It is a parallel study of the enduring and often mysterious love and loyalty that can hold a marriage together through turbulent, trying times. The story is obviously a loving homage to his own grandparents and their struggles, two people that he says “continue to feel so present in my family and in my own life . . . ”
Block’s prose is lushly descriptive, evoking vivid imagery and characterizations, described by some reviewers as “lyrical.” It is an intensely personal and mesmerizing look at one fictional family’s journey and legacy.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of The Storm at the Door free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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One lucky reader, selected at random, will receive a copy of The Storm at the Door, graciously provided by the author.
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