A Different Kind of Angel relates the story of Klara Gelfman, a Jewish refugee from the Russian pogroms of 1881. After Klara's entire family was butchered in the violence in Kiev, just her and her father escaped to freedom in America, but sadly Klara's father died of illness on the voyage to New York. Alone and lost in a new world, Klara struggles to survive, with virtually no English. When she is mugged and left bewildered and stunned in a New York alleyway, the police, believing her to be a drunk, vagrant, prostitute arrest her and before she knows what is happening to her she is committed to the infamous Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum in the middle of the East River, where, for five long years, she will encounter both the worst and the best of the human condition. It will take the intervention of a brave, young investigative journalist, Elizabeth Cochran (better known as Nelly Bly), to expose to the world the horrific activities of the staff of that institution and the dreadful conditions under which many woman (a lot of whom were no more insane than you or I) were kept, usually for the rest of their lives.
This, like so many of Mahurin's books, is a hard book to read, not because it is not well-written, which it is, but because the sheer mindless violence and inhumane treatment of the patients at Blackwell's Island is so horrific. As always Mahurin manages to make the book readable and palatable by showing us the indomitable nature of the women's spirits and the idea that no matter how bad things are, it is always possible to find something to be grateful for. I cringed at some of the things that were done to these women, but equally I marvelled and cheered at the way they were able to rise above the pain, the suffering and the hopelessness of their situation and find something in each other, to sustain them.
Paulette Mahurin has perfectly captured this human thirst for love, for life, and for freedom in this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough as a great read and a great inspiration. I have no doubt this book will feature highly in my awards at the end of this year, as her books always do. Don't miss this one, it is a benchmark for this type of fiction.