In “The Illness Lesson,” a debut novel by Clare Beams, an idealistic thinker launches an educational experiment that seemed radical in the 19th century: a school for girls. The book began, Beams said, with an image: a pastoral New England landscape, something like the bucolic beauty of Fruitlands, where Louisa May Alcott’s father (whom the educator resembles) built a failed utopian community in the 1840s. And then a flash of the unexpected: a startling red bird, “a little bit too brightly colored to be where it is,” Beams said. The mysterious arrival of the strange birds heralds trouble among the students, who begin to exhibit strange symptoms, variously fainting, humming, and twitching.
For Beams, the setting was a natural. “I think that the 19th century never feels all that far away from me,” she said. “I grew up in Connecticut in a house from the 1730s, and so I sort of always felt surrounded by the past. I was obsessed with ‘Little Women’ as a kid and probably read it 20 times.”
“I love writing about classrooms and schools,” Beams added. “I just find them fascinating little theaters of human nature.” There’s a contradiction at the heart of Hood’s school. “I wanted it to be full of beautiful and true ideas about these girls and what they’re capable of, but I wanted it to be a school that was founded by men,” she said. “I think there are still a lot of contradictions about what we tell women about their lives and what those lives turn out to be like.”
“Often when I turn to the past,” Beams said, “I’m looking for a more intensified way of talking about the present.”
Clare Beams will read at Porter Square Books on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m.