Review: The Bright Unknown by Elizabeth Byler Younts

Title: The Bright Unknown by Elizabeth Byler Younts
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Genre: Historical (’30s, ’40s & ’90s), Fiction
Length: 368 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


This poignant and heartbreaking novel explores the power of resilience, the gift of friendship, and the divine beauty to be found in the big, bright world—if only we’re willing to look.

Pennsylvania, 1940s. The only life Brighton Friedrich has ever known is the one she has endured within the dreary walls of Riverside Home—the rural asylum where she was born. A nurse, Joann, has educated and raised Brighton, whose mother is a patient at the hospital. But Joann has also kept vital information from Brighton—secrets that if ever revealed would illuminate Brighton’s troubling past and the circumstances that confine her to Riverside. Brighton’s best friend is a boy she calls Angel, and as they grow up together and face the bleak future that awaits them, they determine to make a daring escape.

Nothing can prepare Brighton and Angel for life beyond Riverside’s walls. They have no legal identities, very little money, and only a few leads toward a safe place to land. As they struggle to survive in a world they’ve never seen before, they must rely on each other and the kindness of strangers—some of whom may prove more dangerous than the asylum they’ve fled.

Narrated in Elizabeth Byler Younts’s gorgeous style, The Bright Unknown is a sparkling search for answers, family, and a place to call home.


The Bright Unknown by Elizabeth Byler Younts is a gritty yet ultimately, hopeful, novel that mainly takes place in the Riverside Home for the Insane.

Although she has no mental illness, Brighton Friedrich lives in a mental institution with her mother, Helen.  Pregnant when admitted to Riverside, Helen gives birth to Brighton within the asylum walls, but it is nurse, Joann Derry, who raises the young girl.  As she grows older, Brighton takes care for her mom while Joann provides an education for her and her best friend, Angel. Brighton also witnesses the horrific “treatment” of the patients who suffer from serious mental illnesses such as psychosis and schizophrenia. She is very much aware that during this time period, not everyone who is a patient belongs there. Many of the patients are merely an inconvenience to their families while others are mentally retarded, depressed or merely orphaned.  After befriending new patient, Grace Douglass, who is Brighton’s age, they, along with Angel, begin planning for their eventual escape.

In 1990, Brighton, who now goes by Nell, is contacted by Kelly Keene who has possession of the items she was forced to leave behind during her hurried departure from Riverside decades earlier. Kelly will return Nell’s belongings in return for telling her story about what occurred within the walls of the asylum. The now dilapidated buildings  are slated for demolition as long as the town agrees to fund the project.  Nell will only agree with her proposition as long as Kelly arranges for her to revisit the grounds and buildings where she lived during her childhood.  Will confronting the ghosts of her past give Brighton peace? Or will her experiences continue to haunt her?

Seamlessly weaving back and forth in time,  The Bright Unknown is a beautifully written novel that is heartbreaking but also hopeful.  The horrors of asylums and the treatment of the patients are sensitively portrayed but sometimes difficult to read. Through Elizabeth Byler Younts’ descriptive prose, the setting and characters spring vibrantly to life.  A poignant and thought-provoking novel that I found impossible to put down and highly recommend.

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Filed under Contemporary, Elizabeth Byler Younts, Fiction, Historical, Historical (30s), Historical (40s), Historical (90s), Rated B+, Review, The Bright Unknown, Thomas Nelson Publishing

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