|Reviewed By Melissa Tanaka for Readers’ Favorite
Sylvia Shults’ 44 Years in Darkness: A True Story of Madness, Tragedy, and Shattered Love tells the story of Rhoda Derry, one of the greatest tragedies of mental health care in Illinois. Rhoda was the youngest of the Derry family and was courted by Charles Phenix, the son of a prosperous farming family, for about two years. While Charles is set on marrying Rhoda, his mother interferes, forcing them to break up and placing a curse on Rhoda in the process. Although the curse itself was falsified, the effects it had on Rhoda were anything but.
The novel alternates between the story of Rhoda Derry — her life, how she was driven to madness, her ensuing mistreatment, and ultimately how the people at the Peoria State Hospital were able to help her — and other relevant information about the time period, particularly in regards to how women were being affected by ideas such as spiritualism and the Industrial Revolution, as well as the crusade for mental health rights. Although these pages are dense with history of the era and the state of asylums and almshouses, Shults makes it interesting by adding an element of humanity that helps readers relate.
As a lover of history and the uncanny, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and devoured it in one sitting. I had never heard of Rhoda Derry and now I don’t think I will ever forget a story of such survival. The story of Rhoda Derry is equal parts heartbreaking and captivating, grabbing your attention from the first page and sending you hurtling through history to discover just how the life of an average woman was ultimately destroyed by a few words and history’s irresponsible ignorance of mental health.