Rob Ritchey of Chatham, who has just released his debut novel, “Marriette” (West Barnstable Press, 2020), has an unusual background for a novelist: he is a podiatrist who recently returned to painting portraits.
“I grew up in the Boston area being an artist, but then life pushed me along other paths,” he said in an email interview last week. “I was a machinist for a while after college and then on to medical school in San Francisco.”
He graduated from the California College of Podiatric Medicine and had post-graduate training in foot surgery while on active duty in the U.S. Army. He moved to Cape Cod in 1992. He currently serves on the staff of Cape Cod Hospital and runs a private practice in Hyannis.
He and his wife Mary met in the late 1990s. Each has two sons from previous marriages.
When he retired from doing foot surgery at Cape Cod Hospital about seven years ago, he picked up his long-abandoned paint brush and began painting portraits again, just as he had been in the late 1960s. One of Ritchey’s drawings graces the front cover of “Marriette.”
“The return of the art surprised me, although not altogether unpredictable and I’m grateful for its return,” he says. “The writing came along about the same time, four years ago. That was a total surprise.
“Never had really written much. Haven’t read fiction since the ‘80s. Mostly read science. Still do,” he adds.
While he finds painting “soothing, unconscious,” he finds that writing is “hard, entertaining work. Emotional. Gratifying also, so internally directed. I’ve always been a storyteller. Guess it was the time to start writing things down.”
When he began writing, he thought he was writing a short story. But as the writing progressed, the short story morphed into a 369-page novel. He and Mary began having regular conversations about the characters, and this “soon developed into an intimate collaboration which produced this beautiful story.”
“Marriette” opens in West Africa as a tribesman named Havra gazes over a vast grassy plain as he “walks toward civilization.” The scene then shifts to June 30, 1972, when Marriette LaFleur arrives back in Montreal following two years of intensive study living with Havra’s tribe in West Africa. Marriette is somewhat dazed to be back in a western city. Her discomposure grows when she learns from her father that her beloved only brother, Pierre, was killed in Vietnam a few months earlier, right around the time that she and some of the tribesmen suffered a violent attack.
Back at McGill, Marriette, who is now studying for an advanced degree in clinical psychology, discovers that she herself is suffering from nightmares and flashbacks – a kind of PTSD. She begins meeting with Pete, a WWII veteran who was so traumatized by the war that he has been unable to maintain normal relationships.
“I’m interested in finding out how soldiers recover from seeing awful things that happen to their buddies or to them,” she tells him. “…or from doing awful things to other people whether they wanted to or not. The kind of stuff that gets into your brain, causing emotional problems and making life thereafter difficult forever.”
For his part, Pete provides Marriette with insight into his PTSD when he tells her that after WWII, “nobody talked…not to me anyway.”
Ritchey himself had occasion to listen to many combat veterans both when he served in the U.S. Army and later, in private practice. The veterans revealed “the stories of their troubled lives after returning home,” he writes in book’s foreword. One particular patient, a WWII veteran, came home without a scratch, but “then suffered in silence, the bizarre image of war he carried which tortured him day after day, night after night, killing him a little bit more, every day, for 75 more years.”
The novel shifts to follow Jennifer Taylor, who becomes a clinical psychologist treating veterans at the V.A. hospital in Providence, R.I. in 1992. At this point Marriette is “an esteemed pioneer in cognitive behavioral therapy” teaching at Brown University. Eventually the two women become close, and Marriette confides in Jen the details of the violent attack in West Africa.
Ritchey, who calls himself “pro-feminist,” says he has written two “strong and independent” female characters a generation apart from one another. The pair “develop a close friendship and throughout the novel become like mother and daughter, weaving a story about traumatic stress disorder through their contributions to research, contact with clients and through their own losses and recoveries.”
Both women work with veterans suffering from PTSD.
“Our minds are plastic and can be rewritten with effort,” Ritchey says. “Minds damaged by stress-related trauma require treatment. This novel of hope demonstrates how that can be accomplished.”
The story comes full circle in the final chapters, pulling together the characters for a satisfying ending.
Ritchie dedicates his novel to his wife, who edited the work. He is writing a second novel exploring the history of women’s reproductive rights in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Marriette” is available at Yellow Umbrella Books, 501 Main St., Chatham.