One Glorious Ambition

Written by Jane Kirkpatrick
Review by Jo Ann Butler

Dorothea Dix was one of America’s most effective reformers, but we don’t hear as much about her as we should. Jane Kirkpatrick has written a historical novel guaranteed to correct that problem. One Glorious Ambition presents readers with Dorothea’s tireless campaign to improve care for the mentally ill and introduces readers to a remarkable woman.

A 19th-century girl, especially a poor one raised in the home of a rich grandmother, was expected to seek the best husband she could find and to raise her children well. Dorothea remains single, even though her career as a teacher was ended by long bouts of illness. When she regains her health, Dorothea begins to teach female prisoners in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then she finds the rooms where the insane and mentally handicapped are kept in brutal conditions.

In 1842 Dorothea convinces Middlesex County to build an asylum where they can live and have their illnesses treated. Then she visits another jail. Soon she is being called to jails across eastern America, pleading with the states to create an asylum system. In 1848 she begins her work at the national level. Dorothea Dix becomes a lobbyist, snagging passing congressmen and senators with her buttonhook to plead, cajole, or embarrass them into supporting her campaign.

I loved One Glorious Ambition. Kirkpatrick’s clear prose brings both Dorothea and her world to vivid life, from the halls of Congress to the tortured souls to whom she devotes so much of her life. I would have enjoyed reading more about Dorothea’s stint as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War, but perhaps Kirkpatrick intends to explore that in another tale. Highly recommended.