The nurse in me cringed at some of the events that scream “Malpractice!” in Martha Tod Dudman’s involving new novel, “Sunrise and the Real World.”

The book is set in the late 1970s in a fictional Maine residential treatment center for troubled teens – Sunrise. A book about people who make good choices all the time wouldn’t be much of a story. Instead, “Sunrise and the Real World” centers on a chain of events brought about by human error that leads to devastating consequences. Like an accident you pass on the highway, that chain reaction is both horrifying and difficult to ignore.

The foreground of the story takes place in the present and unfolds in real time as Lorraine, a journalist in her 50s, tries to make sense of her stint working at Sunrise when she was young. Over decades, her efforts to put Sunrise –and the traumatic events that occurred there – behind her have failed, and she realizes that the only way she can truly move on is to make an earnest attempt to answer her remaining questions.

Lorraine announces she’ll write a book in which she’ll tell what happened many years ago as a way to unravel the mysteries that persist.

While her technique isn’t always subtle, Dudman has a talent for capturing a sense of foreboding. Early in the novel, she casts the spell as she describes Lorraine, who is at a writer’s residency, trying to drill down and connect to the past: “Every time I come out early like this, and alone, I’m afraid that somebody’s waiting in there, sitting where I won’t see him until I put on the light. There’s no one this morning, of course, just a room with a glaring, unflattering light, a desk, a daybed, a chair: the bare bones of creation provided.”

If you think that sounds like foreshadowing, you would be correct.


As the novel dips into the past, we meet Lorraine as an idealistic young woman who begins her professional life by working with troubled teens; her own youth, too, has also been chaotic. We soon learn Lorraine is someone who keeps her own secrets and is deeply curious about the secrets of others. She struggles to navigate the unspoken rules at Sunrise.

She lucks into a relationship with a sweet local guy, but she soon finds herself bored. The simple math of his feelings for her never seem to add up to enough. Though she tries her best to prop up the illusion of contentment, Lorraine is most at home inside of dysfunctional relationships. She becomes infatuated with her boss, Elliot, a man profoundly lacking in professional boundaries. He dangles his favor intermittently, which only makes Lorraine want “to feel the tension between us, to pretend to talk about work while a second unspoken conversation rippled beneath the surface.”

I wish Dudman had done a better job of humanizing the teens at Sunrise, the recipients of a flawed treatment model. They are imperfect and have misguided ideas, sure, but Dudman doesn’t always make it clear that they are the victims of a broken system, as well as their own traumatic history, not merely bad seeds.

As Lorraine starts to get the hang of things at work, two acts of terrible violence occur that send her reeling, testing her faith in others. She does her best to start a new career and a new life away from Sunrise as a wife and mother. On the surface, she has everything she’s ever wanted, but we know Lorraine well enough by now to know that it can’t last. The climactic finale of “Sunrise and the Real World” lands us back in the present, where Lorraine must retrace steps and revisit the places where the darkest secrets lurk.

Although she’s smart and craves the truth, Lorraine hasn’t yet figured out how her own past may be distorting the here and now. The consequence is nothing short of shattering.

Cassandra Powers is a nurse practitioner in community mental health in Portland. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart and she received her MFA from the University of Oregon. 

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