When I read Josephine Ensign’s piece in this spring’s Intima and saw she had a novel coming out soon, I immediately wanted to read it. The book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse's Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, published this year by She Writes Press, doesn’t disappoint. Ms. Ensign brings her masterful crisp prose and extensive experience as a family nurse practitioner, writer and teacher to the issue of homelessness, and offers an engaging, informative and moving memoir.
Catching Homelessness begins with Ms. Ensign’s childhood growing up at a camp near a Civil War battlefield, “a landscape of ghosts and half-buried violence, covered in violets, punctuated by deep, abandoned wells.” But the memoir’s main focus is Richmond, Virginia in the 1980’s, when Ms. Ensign was a newly minted nurse practitioner running a health clinic out of a homeless shelter. Her perspective of the homeless changes from her initial view of them as “exotic, impoverished, foreign-to-us people,” to real people with real problems: Lee, “dressed in several layers of hospital gowns, with the vulnerable air that clings to them,” who when dying of AIDS names Ms. Ensign as his next of kin; schizophrenic Louie, covered in head lice; pregnant Sallie with an IQ of 45. Ms. Ensign changes our view too, reaching us on an emotional level with these and other precisely drawn characters. We pick up a lot of knowledge along the way, not just about homelessness but also about the origin of the nurse practitioner role, the geography of Richmond and the lingering effects of its history. We learn to empathize with the people drawn to serving the homeless.
As a young new nurse at the Richmond clinic, Ms. Ensign recalls, “I still wasn’t sure how far I’d go, what I’d risk catching in the name of compassion or health care duty.” Run-ins with Richmond’s male-dominated medical establishment, disillusionment with her Evangelical Christian upbringing, and a failing marriage lead to Ms. Ensign’s own homeless crisis, an experience which enables her to bring a unique perspective to the issue. By the end of the book, you feel you’ve read a good story and learned a lot too. And you’re sure to take the advice she offers in the book’s comprehensive appendix, and respond to the next homeless person you meet with a smile and a kind word. -- Priscilla Mainardi
PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University. Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently Blue Moon Literary and Art Review and The Examined Life Journal. She teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey. Her short story “Pretending Not to Know” appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima.