Rabbit Foot Bill by Helen Humphreys

Truth be told I picked up this book because my mother’s side of the family comes from Saskatchewan, and years ago my mother taught in Weyburn. She had lots of teaching stories to share but I don’t ever remember her telling me about the mental hospital. 

Leonard’s is our protagonist. Leonard’s only friend in the world is Bill an older man who lives on the fringes of society and makes lucky rabbit foot chains for those who would be so inclined to buy them.  Lenard was only a boy when he witnesses Bill murder the town bully with a pair of garden shears. An experience that would traumatize anyone. But interestingly enough Lenorad’s response to the murder was similar to the murderer’s itself the; victim “had it coming to him.”

I’ve read several reviews of this novel and some reviewers have complained that the characters are flat and the plot is underdeveloped. This is not my view. Maybe because of my interest in the setting and its connection to my mother or maybe because I think the author’s intent was to portray a story of redemption. We didn’t have to know every fact about Leonards’s life or every fact of Bill’s life. We just need to know the bits and pieces that led to Leonard loving himself.

Bill is arrested and Leonard grows up and becomes a psychiatrist. This is where Weyburn comes in. Leonard is hired on at the Weyburn Mental Hospital and is surprised and relieved to see that Bill is not in prison but rather an inmate of the asylum.

We soon realize that Leonard has a dangerous fascination with Bill. He claims to want to understand what led Bill to murder, but we soon realize that Leonard’s friendship was more complicated and disturbing than we first were led to believe. As a psychiatrist is Leonard is drawn to Bill because he wanted to figure out his own fascination with the outcast or is it because he wants to pursue the relationship they had once formed all those years ago?

Humphries has stated that the novel is “about people trying to fix themselves”. I came away thinking it was also a novel about self-discovery and forgiveness. Pretty deep themes for such a short read. 

It is also a novel that is informative it brings to life a time in Canadian Health care that is not often acknowledged.  A time when children were placed in mental institutions because there were “too many mouths to feed” or if they seemed “slow”. It was also a time when psychiatrists took LSD along with their patients. In fact, the true history of the Weyburn mental hospital is pretty fascinating. According to Atlas Obscura, it was an institution where cutting edge treatments and psychiatric drug research happened. It was where the term “psychedelic” was first coined AND the CIA was interested in its LSD research as potential use in truth serums.

If you’re looking to increase your exposure to Canadian literature “Rabbit Foot Bill” is a great novel to add. I would also add this novel to a High School novel study or make part of an in class book collection.

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