Jane Kirkpatrick has done a great service to the legacy of Dorothea Dix, a 19th-century reformer who worked on behalf of the mentally ill and promoted education for the masses. Dix, who lived primarily in the Boston area, is one of those historical figures who was responsible for significant social change but remains in the shadows, in part because of the limited influence women were permitted to exert on political, educational and mental health institutions.
Kirkpatrick is known for being a thorough researcher, and with this book, her researching skills prove to be intact. Readers who appreciate authenticity should have no problem with Dix's story, but anyone expecting an inspiring read from start to finish will likely be disappointed. Dix's work was clearly inspirational, but her life itself, especially her early life, was for the most part depressing.
"Readers who enjoy historical fiction and fictionalized biographies, along with those who are interested in the treatment of the mentally ill and the work of social reformers in the 19th century, will find a great deal to like about ONE GLORIOUS AMBITION."
The daughter of an abusive father and a mentally ill mother, Dix was controlled by her well-off but domineering grandmother for much of her life. Her grandmother's primary goal was to find a suitable husband for Dorothea, but it was a goal she never attained. Dix had no interest in marriage, instead focusing her attention on the schools she founded, as well as her efforts to improve conditions in what were then known as insane asylums and in the prisons where mentally ill inmates did not receive adequate treatment or care.
Dix's crusade took her to England at the invitation of a family of social reformers. When she returned to America, she began investigating mental hospitals in her home state of Massachusetts and later throughout the U.S. and Canada, and fought to improve conditions for patients, often against the stubborn resistance of legislators and experts who subscribed to a different perspective on the cause and treatment of mental illness. Her strenuous travels came at a cost, as she battled health problems throughout her life. But as Kirkpatrick highlights, it was the memory of her mother's mental illness that kept Dix at the forefront of the fight to provide compassionate, humane and hygienic care for those whom society would otherwise have discarded.
As always, Kirkpatrick's writing is graceful and poignant. A master of historical fiction, Kirkpatrick has long been a favorite author among fans of the genre, and for good reason. She seamlessly weaves biographical and historical facts into her expert storytelling, both here and in her many previous novels. She never falls victim to the temptation to idolize or glorify Dix, which would be an easy thing to do given Dix's many accomplishments --- one of which was her tenure as supervising nurse over military hospitals during the Civil War. Perhaps because history doesn't paint a flattering picture of Dix in that role, Kirkpatrick gives little attention to that period in her life. In an interview included in the book, Kirkpatrick credits Dix with, among other things, encouraging a young volunteer nurse, Louisa May Alcott, to leave that work to avoid exposure to potentially lethal illnesses --- and unwittingly, to give her the opportunity to write.
The book also includes a two-page cast of characters, which proved to be more helpful than I anticipated, and a reader's guide. Readers who enjoy historical fiction and fictionalized biographies, along with those who are interested in the treatment of the mentally ill and the work of social reformers in the 19th century, will find a great deal to like about ONE GLORIOUS AMBITION.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on May 17, 2013