In Mary Casanova’s evocative novel Waterfall, a young artist readjusts to life after a harrowing stay at a mental institution.
Set in 1922, amid the lush Minnesota wilderness, the novel creates an idyllic, unique sense of place. Baird Island, owned by Trinity’s family, offers “sublime” beaches and forests, along with boating, swimming, stargazing, and evening cocktail parties. Memories of these were of vital importance to Trinity after her sudden breakdown sent her to the Oak Hills asylum. Her time at Oak Hills was grim; she witnessed other women patients being sexually abused and receiving inept medical treatment. These women also lived with the chilling possibility of reproductive sterilization, sanctioned by the then-popular eugenics movement.
After convincing her family that she’s cured, Trinity hopes to resume her art studies in Paris. But her parents disapprove of Trinity’s creative “temperament,” preferring that their daughter opt for a suitable marriage and motherhood instead. And even as they try to control her fate, Trinity’s parents are revealed to be far from perfect: her unstable, aggressive mother has a laudanum addiction, and her jovial, affectionate father haggles over pennies despite his wealth; he’s also an unapologetic antisemite.
While other women are becoming more liberated and have just won the right to vote, Trinity remains trapped in a maze of dependence: though her father is a millionaire, she has almost no money of her own. Waterfall develops this frustrating irony with skill. As the novel progresses, Trinity draws strength from her love of Baird Island. Her emotional and artistic confidence increases, and she takes greater control of her future.
With its glorious setting contrasting with the realities of the era, Waterfall details darker aspects of the Roaring Twenties, but also celebrates the reemergence of an individual spirit.
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