The Bright Unknown

Written by Elizabeth Byler Younts
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

Brighton Turner was born into the worst possible circumstances: her mother delivered her while “imprisoned” in a mental institution in rural Pennsylvania. With no known family other than her mother, Brighton is raised in this harsh environment, even though she herself has no mental disorder. Her only bright spot is Joann, a nurse who cares for Brighton as if she was her own daughter, and Angel, an albino boy also being raised in the institution. When the two are teenagers, Grace, a girl whose parents sent her away simply to prevent her from getting involved in an interracial relationship, joins them.

As Brighton, Angel and Grace get older, they begin to realize that they have no future and no way out of the institution’s walls unless they make a daring escape. However, a betrayal from someone Brighton trusts complicates their plans.

The Bright Unknown is nothing short of mesmerizing. The reader is plunged into the frightening world of mental institutions in the 1930s and ´40s; the abhorrent conditions and treatment of human beings are simultaneously eye-opening, horrific and depressing. The reader grows to care deeply about the fate of these young people, whose circumstances of birth led them to the depths of hell.

Brighton is a complex character, a girl who knows nothing about the outside world—how money is used, how to order food on a menu, etc. Her voice, and the voices of the other major characters, are authentic and make for a compulsively readable story. The book is heartbreaking but beautifully written, almost lyrical, and ultimately filled with hope.