The Road to Wellville (1993)

by T. C. Boyle

If you were or thought you were suffering from any ailment in the early 20th century, money and faith in its proprietor might bring you to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s famous sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg (of the cereal family) kept his patients on a regimen of at least five enemas a day; food and drink with unusual names like protose and kumyss; and no meat, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, or sex.

Battle Creek had another bustling enterprise at the time: cereal manufacturing. Scores of entrepreneurs were arriving to start cereal companies to compete with W. K. Kellogg, John Harvey’s brother, and C. W. Post (whose “The Road to Wellville” slogan J. H. Kellogg despised).

T. C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville brings together the two phenomena with verve and historical detail. Along with portraits of the real-life Kellogg and his adopted son, George (the latter altered from the real person), Boyle features the fictional Will and Eleanor Lightbody, a well-to-do New York couple at the san for a cure, and an aspiring cereal manufacturer, Charlie Ossining.

Kellogg exercised tyrannic control over this patients that he justified by a sincere belief in the scientific correctness of his methods. Will Lightbody has doubts. Diets of milk and grapes don’t help his stomach, and Will has seen things go wrong, including another patient’s electrocution during a “sinusoidal” bath. But Eleanor Lightbody, a Kellogg-worshipping health nut, insists on staying on at the sanitarium for month after month. It’s not until Will discovers her in shameful misbehavior that Eleanor realizes she’s gone off the deep end.

Meanwhile, Kellogg’s perfect self-image is frustrated by his inability to control the hostile, destructive George. And Charlie takes as long as Eleanor to have his eyes opened — in his case, to his partner’s bilking him and their investors — and by that point he can’t bring himself to take the honest path.

For a long book, The Road to Wellville is a quick read and easy to digest. Boyle is know for his exuberant, entertaining style. He has commented that he tried to keep his portrayal of the sanitarium relatively accurate — adding, however, that he may have applied his legendary wit too heavily in deflating Kellogg.


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