Title: The Tin Box
Author Name & Publisher: Kim Fielding (Dreamspinner Press)
Publication Date & Length: September 20, 2013 — 210 Pages
William Lyon’s past forced him to become someone he isn’t. Conflicted and unable to maintain the charade, he separates from his wife and takes a job as caretaker at a former mental hospital. Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum was the largest mental hospital in California for well over a century, but it now stands empty. William thinks the decrepit institution is the perfect place to finish his dissertation and wait for his divorce to become final. In town, William meets Colby Anderson, who minds the local store and post office. Unlike William, Colby is cute, upbeat, and flamboyantly out. Although initially put off by Colby’s mannerisms, William comes to value their new friendship, and even accepts Colby’s offer to ease him into the world of gay sex.
William’s self-image begins to change when he discovers a tin box, hidden in an asylum wall since the 1940s. It contains letters secretly written by Bill, a patient who was sent to the asylum for being homosexual. The letters hit close to home, and William comes to care about Bill and his fate. With Colby’s help, he hopes the words written seventy years ago will give him courage to be his true self.
This review is for the audiobook read by K.C. Kelly.
It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered such a beautiful and inspiring book. I wish there were more stars to give. I’ve read Kim Fielding before and enjoyed it, but this gives me a whole new appreciation for her writing.
This story is both heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s a story of injustice and cruelty, but it’s also about personal growth, identity, compassion, and love.
The story is immediately engaging. The characters are very real and relatable. It was such a pleasure getting to know William, Colby and Bill. The reading by K.C. Kelly is great, and the voices suit the characters perfectly.
All in all I highly recommend this book, especially for those with an interest in LGBTQ social and historical issues. And don’t forget the tissues!
If I wasn’t already a fan of Kim Fielding, this book would do it for me. This is by far my favorite of her novels. What a beautiful and hopeful story, centered on an important piece of gay history. I knew some of the things described here, but I hadn’t realized they were such recent history (other than more recent methods of “curing” gay people).
The juxtaposition of the two eras was the best part of the novel. Had it centered only on the terrible and sad story of Bill–told through the letters–it would have become another in a long line of gay tragedies which marked earlier genre lit. Had it excluded the history and only centered on William and Colby’s present-day relationship it would have been nothing more than a standard romance. It’s the pairing of the two, and William’s own emerging from his painful past, which makes this story truly great.
This would be a tough read for anyone who has been through “ex-gay” therapy of any type or who is old enough to remember the days when gay novels were largely doomed romance. It will also hit a nerve for people who have been involuntarily admitted to mental health facilities. However, there’s a lot of hope here, including the way in which William and his friends choose to preserve the history he’s unearthed in the old hospital.
I don’t see it as being played for drama or as making light of serious crimes against humanity in mental health treatment. The author touches on a variety of sensitive subjects, and I see this more as a way of ensuring we don’t repeat the past. This is not really a story about the horrors of how the mentally ill have been dehumanized; it’s about a specific and brutal homophobic system. By comparing it with William’s present-day experiences, it’s made starkly clear that while we’re no longer carving people up as treatment, we haven’t gotten entirely past the idea gay people need to be fixed. The story should be read with that in mind.
In the end, this is far less about William’s romance with Colby and much more about bigger and more complicated themes. If I have any complaint at all it’s that I think this could have worked just as well as a much longer story. Regardless, it’s a well-written novel containing important documentation of a dark era.
All royalties from her novels Stasis, Flux and Equipoise are donated to Doctors Without Borders.