In the suburbs of Chicago, a stark reminder of the toll of heroin and prescription-pill addiction is making the rounds as a lawn exhibit. One hundred fake tombstones and banners are set up at a new location every week as a precursor to International Overdose Awareness Day.
In Medinah, a suburb northwest of Chicago, the houses are swanky and the lots are large. The country club has long been home to headline golf tournaments. On a recent day, across the street from a neighborhood park, Felicia Micelli stands next to a long line of painted mock tombstones that she and others have placed on her expansive lawn.
"What we have out here are a visual of how many people die in America a day from overdose," Micelli says.
Felicia and her husband, Lou Micelli, started a foundation named for their son after his death two years ago. Louis Theodore Micelli was popular and an athlete who got hooked on painkillers and later heroin. He was 24 years old when he died. Micelli says people need to pay attention to what she calls an overdose epidemic.
"It just angers me and it makes me want to cry," she says, "because maybe my son would still be here if people were talking about it and doing something about it."
The heroin trade on Chicago's west side is strong. It is especially booming after Mexican drug cartels made the city a Midwestern hub and it's been a silent scourge for many suburban areas. Kathie Kane-Willis, the director of Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, says the traveling tombstone idea was inspired by the Names Quilt Project that activists started long ago to fight AIDS.
"During the 1980s and 1990s, there was so much shame associated with it, people didn't want to initially own that," Kane-Willis says. "[And] that was this community; that was happening to these people. And the idea about this was to say 'no, this is happening all around you. You just might not see it.'"
So advocacy groups, like the one led by Chelsea Laliberte, have worked to bring the display to different neighborhoods. Laliberte says when her younger brother, Alex, died from an overdose at age 20, it devastated her family.
"Of course there are areas where other drugs are more prominent than heroin, but here in Chicagoland, heroin is our issue right now and so are prescription pills," Laliberte says. "Because it's happening, it's taking lives all the time."
The tombstones, she says, are meant to shock people. Marian Huhman, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in public health social marketing campaigns, says it can be difficult to measure the effectiveness of such programs.
"But I want to emphasize that [it] doesn't detract from the importance of these kinds of grassroots efforts that are a very inexpensive way to get an important public health message out there," Huhman says.
Back at Felicia Micelli's, cars do slow down as drivers take a look at the lawn exhibit.
"Well sorry that you find yourself having to display this, but good to create awareness [because] problems are everywhere," says Mike Gilley, a neighbor walking by who stopped to talk.
The last stop for the traveling tombstones will come at the end of the month, at a park where activists and families will give out resources and commemorate those who have died from an overdose.
Katy Simpson Smith didn't have any trouble choosing a historical setting for her first novel. The American Revolution, she tells NPR's Audie Cornish, "was such a ripe moment for uncertainty: The various colonies are trying to figure out how they would make a nation of themselves, and families are trying to navigate evolving attitudes about religion and race and what it really means to be independent."
The Story of Land and Sea is Smith's debut novel — and actually came out of her research as a historian on mothers in the South. One of the central characters in Smith's book is a young woman named Helen, who like many women at that time, would not live to meet her child.
On how frequently women died during childbirth
Dying during childbirth was extremely common at the end of the 18th century and it sort colored the way families were formed. You had husbands with multiple wives in succession and you had fathers trying to raise daughters on their own. Death was sort of the specter that haunted every aspect of life in this period. And for me that's a very rich place to put characters because their lives are filled with so much uncertainty.
On the men who were left behind
For me what's interesting is how the women in this book — while they typically meet rather tragic ends — they are the ones who are involved in action, they are the ones who are shaping their own lives, while the male characters are the ones who sort of sit around and think about their loss and their grief. And I think that sort of turns around what we think is the common order for men and women s roles in the late 18th century. We think of men acting in the public sphere and women stuck at home, but here I wanted to show women being the actors and men being the ones left behind.
On women taking initiative
One of the scenes in the book that is a favorite of mine is when Helen, who has been kidnapped by British soldiers, is on their ship and she is a prisoner. And she could stay locked up in her cabin like a good prisoner but she decides to ... attempt to escape and save the rest of the prisoners. The other prisoners are all men so they're sort of chained to the boat and can't escape. But she, because she is a woman, is given a certain amount of freedom precisely because they don't think she'll do anything with it. And she sees that opportunity and takes matters into their own hands.
I think we have this idea that women wouldn't have taken that step — that they would have been too demure or even cowardly — and I think that's absolutely wrong. I think women in all time periods have found ways to control their own lives even when the historical record suggests they were trapped in by their circumstances.
On Helen's relationship with Moll, an enslaved woman who was "given" to Helen on her 10th birthday
The relationship between Moll and Helen shows how two women can grow up as friends — almost sisters — and yet the specter of slavery colors absolutely everything they do. So Helen and her father ... genuinely believe they are loving and generous with Moll but she is still forced to marry against her will and she has her son taken away from her. So just because she's treated slightly better than other slaves doesn't mean she should ... endure the lack of control over her own life.
On the research that informed this book
I had to read hundreds of letters and diaries and looked at a lot of plantation records, which show slave life in these brief snatches that are tantalizing for what they don't reveal. ... Feeling my way around these white people's words in order to get at what an enslaved woman's life might have been like was challenging, but I feel like that kind of experience needs to be represented more in fiction.
On whether she felt nervous trying to write the story of enslaved individuals
I'm always nervous about speaking with a voice of someone whose experience is so different from mine. But I believe we have the responsibility to do just that. I think fiction in particular allows us to empathize with this wide spectrum of humanity and in order to put yourself in another person's life you have to have that empathy. It's important to me as a historian who has become a fiction writer to show the South at this time period for what it was.