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Indie book tackles serious topic
Niche history of the Wisconsin Insane Hospital should find a wider audience
Bad behavior at the Wisconsin Insane Hospital.
Bad behavior at the Wisconsin Insane Hospital.

Thomas Doherty of Madison worked at the Mendota Mental Health Institute for just a few years when he was a graduate student in the early 1970s. While there, he heard stories about the center's precursor on the same land, the Wisconsin Insane Hospital ' a huge Victorian facility four stories tall and the length of two football fields. Traces of its foundation remain, but otherwise, it's 'long vanished and virtually forgotten,' writes Doherty. But his curiosity was piqued, and when he retired in 1998 he began to research the history of the hospital.

That research led him to discover the story of a remarkable figure, Abraham Van Norstrand, a Yankee transplant, doctor, entrepreneur, Civil War veteran and onetime superintendent of the Insane Hospital, who left the post amid scandal in 1868.

Doherty has poured his considerable research into a book, The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham Van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital, which is certainly a local history but also the story of one driven and unlucky man. In it, the reader also sees the attitudes toward mental illness in the latter half of the 19th century, and the impact of the Civil War on the mental states of its veterans. 'What struck me was the war's effect on the families,' says Doherty, mothers coming unhinged at the deaths of their sons, for instance, or a family losing their farm because there was no one left to do the work.

Doherty began his research at the State Historical Society, looking at the annual reports of the Insane Hospital; in the appendix to the 1868 report he found vivid and controversial testimony regarding the governance of Dr. Van Norstrand. 'It started to become his story,' says Doherty. He was 'a complicated and fascinating guy. He wanted to make his fortune. He tried many things and always came up short.' Doherty also discovered Van Norstrand's military and business records as well as an unpublished memoir.

Although Van Norstrand was sometimes violent and did things in his administration of the hospital that we today would find unethical, 'he was not just sleazy or only mean,' insists Doherty. He'd been 'terrifically capable' during the Civil War.

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant has a lively pace for a history, in part because Doherty is also a fiction writer who's had work published in The Iowa Review and other journals. He's structured his narrative around the mysterious and grisly death of a minister at the Insane Hospital, which was part of the original testimony he discovered in the appendix to the 1868 annual report.

Indifferent treatment for the mentally ill might have involved whiskey and some quinine; bad treatment was more akin to torture. The Best Specimen of a Tyrant takes some detours, but it's an absorbing read, one with themes ' including treatment of veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder, and corrupt actions by high ranking officials ' that resonate sharply today. It's available at University Bookstore and through

East-side artist Steve Chappell has made a cool new book called Warm Rain in Mexico. Chappell, who has previously published a collection of his beautiful woodblock prints, crafts 10 leisurely tales about an idyllic vacation in Puerto Vallarta (or what would have been idyllic were it not for an ear infection).

The heart of the limited-edition book is Chappell's evocative woodblock prints, though. 'Before I left for Mexico, I prepared five small blocks, small enough to fit snugly into my pack,' he writes. 'Since each block had two surfaces I could draw 10 pictures.' The carving and printing followed after he returned to Wisconsin. Warm Rain in Mexico should appeal to anyone longing for a pacific Mexican getaway, fans of woodblock prints, or those who want a charming but also affordable artist's book to enjoy. Available at Star Books, Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, Frugal Muse (west), Escape Java Joint, Absolutely Art and Bookstore at the End of the Universe (Monroe Street).

The Blue of Her Body (Starcherone Books) by Madison writer Sara Greenslit has won the 2006-7 Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. Greenslit, who has an MFA in poetry from Penn State, is currently studying veterinary medicine at the UW-Madison. The novel is written in poetic, sometimes disjointed takes of stream-of-consciousness, yet remains grounded in the natural world. The main character, Kate, is experiencing a crisis in love, but finds partial rejuvenation by working with wild birds of prey.

'I'd always wanted to read a novel that wasn't structured with a traditional narrative arc, that maybe wasn't so neatly tied up,' says Greenslit. She started carrying a notebook, jotting down thoughts, staying open to whatever happened. She didn't try to write in paragraphs and jettisoned linear order: 'It's like a symphonic tone poem, where the composer develops themes and images, redefines them, trying to get to the truth.'

Greenslit started the book some 10 years ago, when she was at Penn State. Starcherone, an indie press out of Buffalo, N.Y., took an interest ' there aren't many presses backing experimental fiction, Greenslit notes.

Now that the book is published, she doesn't have time to revel in it, because of the demands of her third-year coursework at the vet school. And she would like to do some more fiction writing. Yet she has managed to combine her fascination with raptors in both her writing and her veterinary career; she'll be doing a three-week raptor center externship at the University of Minnesota come November.

Winners of the Wisconsin Arts Board 2007 literary arts fellowships include many familiar local names. Five of the seven winners, each of whom receives an $8,000 grant, come from right here in Dane County. From Madison, Dwight Allen (fiction), Robin Chapman and Ron Wallace (poetry); from Verona, Jim Ferris (nonfiction); and from Stoughton, Alison Townsend (poetry).

The rest of the state is represented by Judith Harway of Shorewood (poetry) and Richard Kalinoski of Oshkosh (playwriting). All are looking forward to completing projects currently in progress.

With the exception of Allen, all are teachers employed by the University of Wisconsin (Chapman is a professor emerita).

Some applicants to the fellowship have wondered whether this is the kind of support intended by the grants, believing the award exists to boost writers when they are struggling.

But the grant is not based on financial need. It's not intended for emerging writers but rather 'outstanding professional artists in recognition of their significant contributions to their field,' according to the press release announcing the winners. Nor is it a 'project-oriented grant,' says Karen Goeschko, WAB assistant director for programs and services. 'It's more of a lifetime achievement award.'

The application states that the judges 'recommend awards based on aesthetic quality of work submitted, demonstrated exploration in art form, and record of professional accomplishments/contributions to the art form.' But the application also states the awards 'are intended to support continued artistic/professional development, enabling artists to create new work, complete work in progress and pursue activities which contribute to their artistic growth.' It could be this wording that leads some applicants to believe the award is meant to give a struggling artist a leg up.

Madison writer Dean Bakopoulos unsuccessfully applied for a WAB grant when he was writing his novel Please Don't Come Back From the Moon and working retail at Canterbury Booksellers. Although he needed the money at the time, Bakopoulos notes that 'Eight thousand bucks won't change anybody's life in the long run. But writers do need hope. Hope can change the trajectory of the career.' What some writers may be feeling, Bakopoulos suggests, is that the WAB 'refused to grant them hope' and instead gave it to writers whom they presume 'don't really need it.' Bakopoulos also notes that financial need is 'very subjective' and that a single writer tending bar might be better off financially than a writing professor with a family to support.

The selection panel starts by evaluating the work samples themselves ' a fair way to approach the task. It's only after the best work has been selected from the samples that the panel considers CVs, rÃsumÃs and artist statements also submitted.

WAB Grant Programs and Services Specialist Mark Fraire says that this year's choice of UW-Madison poet Ron Wallace drew questions from around the state, because of the perception that Wallace had won many times before ' 'but this is his first time.'

This is not strictly true, as Wallace did receive a grant in 1994, when the awards came at three levels: $5,000, $3,500 and $1,000. (Wallace got $1,000.) Three of 2007's winners have won $8,000 awards before, though: Richard Kalinoski in 2003 and Dwight Allen and Jim Ferris in 1998. Rules prohibit winning two grant cycles in a row.

The terms of the grant do not restrict what the writers can do with the money, although a report narrating what they did do with it is required. Most recipients state that they use the money to take time off from teaching or lessen their teaching load in order to spend more time writing. Individual winners from 2005 report that they used the money to travel (with students) to England, with side trips to London and Paris; to New Mexico and Mexico to write; to buy 'dozens of poetry books and a new portable printer for travel, as well as a flash drive'; to pay for reading fees to enter literary competitions; to buy books, magazine subscriptions and other research material; to travel to conduct research for future projects; and to attend writing conferences and workshops. Most are grateful to have the chance to spend 'five hours a day, six days a week' writing, as one winner stated.

About the only string attached to the award is that winners agree to conduct 'one public activity during the award period.' Most recent recipients report conducting more than one public activity ' usually readings and workshops.

Fraire of the WAB hopes that in the future, more money will be available for more grants, and that programs to create a better sense of community among state writers could also be funded.

If you're curious: The first WAB individual artist awards in 1976 were for $2,000 and went to Anthony Hozeny, Madison; Mary Kathleen O'Donnell of Belleville, Ray Smith of Superior, J.D. Whitney of Wausau and Warren Woessner of Madison.

Where are they now? Woessner, who founded the literary magazine Abraxas, currently practices law in Minneapolis. He still writes poetry, though; his most recent book is Our Hawk (Toothpaste Press, 2005). J.D. Whitney published What Grandmother Says with the Memorial Library's Parallel Press series in 2000. And if you're out there, Anthony Hozeny, shoot us an e-mail.

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