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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

"The Second Life of Mirielle West" by Amanda Skenandore

Updated: May 13, 2023

Silicon Valley Reads had chosen “Journey to New Beginnings” as its 2023 theme.

One of the books selected to showcase this theme is The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore.

I will be speaking with author Amanda Skenandore on Sunday March 19th, at 4pm, in a virtual event sponsored by IBPW and Silicon Valley Reads. Please register for the event here to receive the zoom link!

The Second Life of Mirielle West is a book of historical fiction, set in the 1920s and 30s in Los Angeles, and then Louisiana. Mirielle is a socialite, married to actor Charlie West, with whom she has two children. The book begins with a visit to the doctor for a burn on Mirielle’s hand. The doctor’s focus is not on the burn, but on the pale skin at the base of her thumb. Alarmed and concerned at her lack of sensation in the area, he refers her to a skin doctor. After the consultation, she is immediately isolated. We learn of a shocking diagnosis: leprosy.

Mirielle takes on a new name to protect her family. She is sent by train along with several other individuals diagnosed with leprosy to New Orleans, from where they are taken to Carville in Louisiana, home of the famous leprosy hospital and colony, bound by the Mississippi river on three sides. And this is where Mirielle’s second life begins.

Mirielle West is not an instantly likeable heroine: she comes from wealth, she has airs. In fact, at the Silicon Valley Reads kickoff event with Skenandore and two other authors, moderator Sal Pizarro commented that he found himself pleased when bad things happened to Mirielle. But as with the notable self-absorbed fictional heroine Scarlett O'Hara, I grew to respect her grit and determination.

Those who were diagnosed with leprosy in the early days before there was a cure were forced into quarantine, in leper colonies. One in Hawaii, on Molokai, is written about in James Michener’s book Hawaii, where people were unloaded from boats in the water close to the shore. There were (and still are) leper colonies in India.

In India, Mother Teresa was revered for her efforts to overcome stigma against those with leprosy. She said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.” That same message comes to life with the residents at Carville, many of whom have been rejected by their families. Yet, with humor and hope, they find ways to carry on.

Mirielle has much to overcome in her own thinking and belief system to accept the others at Carville as her own community. What choices will she make? Will she use her skills and strengths to help herself and everyone else? Set in a time when a diagnosis of leprosy stripped people of their freedom and forced them into quarantine, this captivating book takes us on Mirielle West’s journey to new beginnings.

Author Amanda Skenandore, a registered nurse and author of previous works of historical fiction, has written a compelling book, taking us to a time where a diagnosis of leprosy was more or less a death knell, certainly from the social perspective. It was a time when little was known about the disease other than the fact that it was caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae. Stigma and prejudice abounded due to fear of the unfamiliar and unknown, as during the early days of the current coronavirus pandemic. Yet research into leprosy progressed, as scientists worked diligently to understand the disease and to find cures. As a result, we now know so much about leprosy, renamed Hansen’s disease after the Norwegian scientist who discovered the cause. Contrary to popular belief, it is not highly contagious. It is now easily cured.

Register here to join my conversation with author Amanda Skenandore.

The full calendar of events with author events and discussions of all the selected books is posted here.

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