STATEN ISLAND – It’s Willowbrook’s year at Staten Island College, a cam…
THREE MILE BAY – Themes of resilience, grief and hope propelled Ellen Marie Wiseman’s historical fiction novels to the bestseller list, helped by a keen sense of what subjects – from impact from World War II on the lives of average Germans to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 — resonates with readers.
She was also helped by excellent timing. Her 2020 novel, ‘The Orphan Collector’, is set in 1918 Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic as Ms Wiseman recounts how a 13-year-old German immigrant and her little brothers fall victim to a woman determined to tear families separated during the epidemic.
Coincidentally, the book’s release coincided with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2020, it was selected by Target to be its Book Club Pick for the month.
Also in August 2020, “The Orphan Collector” reached No. 11 on The New York Times’ best-selling paperback list, falling in the list between Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reprint “All the Light We Can’t See” at No. 12 and Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” at No. 10.
“He stayed at No 11,” Ms Wiseman said in a telephone interview from her home in Three Mile Bay, Lyme Town. “But you know what? Never, never in a million years would I have thought that I would make it to the New York Times bestseller list and still be able to consider myself a New York Times bestseller. So it suited me perfectly.”
But things may align to put her back on all sorts of lists, helped by a heartbreaking and heartfelt new story set in New York State and, again, some fortuitous timing.
Ms. Wiseman’s new novel, her sixth, ‘The Lost Girls of Willowbrook’, out August 30, is set in the 1970s and is inspired by Willowbrook State School. The novelist weaves a moving and often disturbing story about social injustice, survival and a young woman’s determination to find her twin sister.
Publishers Marketplace and its Buzz Books have selected “The Lost Girls of Willowbrook” to feature in its Fall/Winter 2022 edition. Previous “Buzz Book” authors include Margaret Atwood and Mitch Albom. The fall/winter edition will contain excerpts from approximately 30 top-selling author titles.
Costco chose the novel as its Costco Shopper’s Choice for September. The company’s Costco Connection is set to feature an interview with Ms. Wiseman in its September issue. The magazine reaches 14 million subscribers.
Barnes & Noble has selected “The Lost Girls of Willowbrook” as one of August’s most anticipated releases. “It’s best to read with the lights on and the doors locked,” B&N says of the novel.
Over one million copies of Ms. Wiseman’s books have been sold in the United States and they have been published worldwide, translated into 20 languages and named to “Best Of” lists by Reading Group Choices, Good Housekeeping , Goodreads, The Historical Novel Society Great Group Readings and more.
Willowbrook State School in Staten Island was the largest institution in the world for the treatment of people with developmental disabilities.
When Ms. Wiseman started the novel, she had no idea that this year is a pivotal year for Willowbrook State School. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its opening, the 50th anniversary of the Geraldo Rivera TV show that brought its issues to national attention, and the 35th anniversary of Willowbrook’s closure. The College of Staten Island, which now sits on Willbrook’s former property, has marked 2022 as Willowbrook’s year.
“I first became interested in Willowbrook when I watched a documentary about the urban legend of Cropsey, the supposed serial killer who lived in the tunnels under Willowbrook,” Ms Wiseman said. “And then I realized it was the same place that Geraldo Rivera had made the exhibition and I thought it would be a good setting for my next book.”
As with her previous novels, the author did intense research and read as many books as she could on her chosen topic. On Willowbrook, the one that helped her immensely was “A History and Sociology of Willowbrook State School”, by Darryl B. Hill, David Goode, Jean Reiss and William Bronston. The book details what life was like for the people who lived and worked at Willowbrook and how and why the institution evolved the way it did.
“It really went into what it was, very deeply,” Ms Wiseman said. “I actually had to tone it down a bit. It was a lot worse than what I was talking about in the book.
But her descriptions of the institution and its patrons in “The Lost Girls of Willowbrook” will leave readers in awe. Ms. Wiseman, who is no stranger to writing such unpleasantness, asked if such descriptions were difficult to write.
“I always write about difficult subjects,” she said. “For me, when I’m doing this research, I’m very committed to people learning these things. When I write that first draft, I’m so determined to get my point across and meet my deadline, that it comes out like this.
But on her rewrites, she has more time to think about her words.
“That’s when it really starts to get to me,” she said. “Especially when I start caring more about my characters while I’m rewriting. It’s hard.”
Ms Wiseman said the more she learned about the Willowbrook ‘school’ itself, the more she realized life inside was more complex than she had originally imagined.
“And the more my sympathy for those who lived and worked there grew,” she said, adding that it was “underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded.”
In a letter to the first readers of her new novel, Ms Wiseman wrote: “Far from public view and completely closed off, it provided the perfect breeding ground for human violence and became an underground city with its own hierarchy and its own company, where employees could buy and sell everything from medicine to jewelry to meat. It has also become a hideout for researchers who have conducted controversial medical experiments, all funded by the Department of Defense.
Ms Wiseman said at the time of Willowbrook’s operation there was more stigma surrounding people with mental and physical disabilities.
“A lot of people and parents didn’t know what to do with their children who were having problems. Even something that we understand today, like epilepsy, would result in the internment of a child,” she said. “Often doctors would encourage parents to hand over their child for the good of the family and that sort of thing. But there were also a lot of able-bodied kids who were sent to Willowbrook because in foster care, sometimes they didn’t know what to do with those kids. Sometimes children were left in public places with a sign around their necks that said, “Take me to Willowbrook. » »
Even more disturbing, Ms Wiseman added: “I even read a story about wealthy parents who paid to have their troublesome child’s IQ test lowered so they could be institutionalized. There was a huge waiting list to get into this place. And a lot of medical experiments were done there.
Ms Wiseman said it was important not to forget what happened at Willowbrook, and her new novel could serve that purpose.
“I hope this will remind us that we need to protect the most vulnerable among us more,” she said. “Every human being has the right to learn and grow and to be treated with compassion, respect and kindness. mental and physical in a different way, and to realize that they have as many rights as everyone else.
But the author also has a more basic hope for his new novel.
“I hope it’s a good story that will keep people turning the pages,” she said.
In a case where the pages of her fiction mirror real life, or vice versa, Ms Wiseman said she recently overheard someone tell her something eerily similar to the plot of the book, which the person had not read again.
“Her twin sister was sent to Willowbrook and she didn’t know about it for a long time, and she died there and doesn’t know why. It’s really strange how life can sometimes imitate art.
Upcoming local events with Ellen Marie Wiseman related to her new novel, “The Lost Girls of Willowbrook”.
n Wednesday, August 31: 6:30 p.m. Lyme Free Library, 12165 Route 12E, Chaumont.
n Thursday, Sept. 1: 6 p.m., River’s End Bookstore, 19 W. Bridge St., Oswego.
n Friday, September 2: 2 p.m., The Little Bookstore, 413 Riverside Drive, Clayton.
n Tuesday, September 6: 6 p.m., Henderson Free Library, 8939 Route 178.
n Tuesday, Sept. 13: 5 p.m. at the Fibonacci Art Gallery, 100 Court St., Watertown.
n Saturday, November 5: 2 p.m. Flower Memorial Library, 229 Washington St., Watertown.