Mary Engle – is eighteen years old. She has just landed a job at the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. Mary has no family to speak of and was raised mostly in a Catholic orphanage. She is quite in awe of the director, Dr. Agnes Vogel and works as her secretary. Mary is very naive and wants to believe that Dr. Vogel has only the best of intentions when it comes to the inmates. She looks upon her as a respected mentor and doesn’t at first realize her arrogance and corruption of power.
Lillian Henning (The Foundling) – a young woman who had an illegitimate child. When her husband discovered he was not the father he sent her to Nettleton and her child was put into care.
Mary and Lillian were brought up in the same Catholic orphanage and were childhood friends. Now one is working at Nettleton, the other is an inmate… Staff ‘knowing’ any of the inmates is strictly forbidden. Mary knows that Lillian is not ‘feebleminded’. Can she risk everything to save her friend?
Feebleminded covers a vast array of conditions. For instance, some of the young women who are inmates of Nettleton were sent there by their husbands, fathers or employers. Perhaps they had become pregnant outside of marriage, were promiscuous, or had been raped by someone in authority. This was thought to be ‘morally feebleminded’. Some were there because they didn’t have the benefit of education and fell into prostitution, or some other demeaning circumstance. Some were there because their husbands tired of them and wanted to move on… What it was in fact was no better than a work farm, a place to keep the women incarcerated until they were no longer of childbearing age. The idea was to not let them procreate so as to sully the population with offspring that were ‘lesser than’ which would put a drain on society.
“They have minds like beasts, you have to tire ’em out, Vogel says. Or they get all… lusty.”
It was a time of rampant corruption. A time when people of a high social status thought they were superior to those who were poor and uneducated.
Anyone who thinks that the world is in a sorry state now needs to look back in time and realize that the past was far from perfect and had just as many social problems – only different ones.
“The Foundling“, set in 1927, illuminates just how disenfranchised women were just a century ago. At that time women were mere chattel, and the property of their fathers and/or husbands. They were not allowed to own property, and any property they did have immediately became their husbands upon their marriage. Those who were privileged enough to be well educated looked down upon those who were less fortunate. The uneducated were deemed ‘intellectually deficit’ so were ‘feebleminded’.
Rich and poor were held to different standards. It was a time for labels. Anyone who was not ‘normal’ was given a label such as moron, idiot, imbecile, etc. Also, anyone who didn’t conform to what the powers that be touted to be “American” were labeled as well. Blacks, Jews, Italians, the Irish, and other immigrants were thought of as inferior beings. The rampant and overt prejudice of that time is mind boggling!
I found this novel quite challenging to read because of the many injustices portrayed and the warped way of thinking depicted. The story dealt with eugenics – for this was a time when eugenics was thought to be a forward-thinking concept.
“It’s our sacred duty to preserve the positive attributes of those who founded this country, and not let our population continue to deteriorate through thoughtless pairings of our best young men and women with inferior stock.”
The novel was well written and obviously well researched. Yes, sadly, there was just such an institution in Laurelton, Pennsylvania in the 1920s.
The character of Mary Engle was quite infuriating for me. Though I realized she was young and naive, I thought she was in denial and her thinking was skewed. Some of her thoughts were preposterous. Was she so deluded because she had no other family or support system? She seemed to be willfully ignorant of the most obvious truths. It serves to remind us that narrow-mindedness is a learned behavior – one that can be overcome.
Anyone who is interested in the history of women’s rights will enjoy this book which puts a fictional veneer over some very real circumstances. Historical fiction that is not always easy to read, but is worth the effort. A well told tale of America’s more sordid, dark past.I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Scribner/Simon & Schuster via Edelweiss at my request, for my own reading enjoyment and the writing of this review. Publication date: May 31, 2022
Ann Leary is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels, THE CHILDREN, THE GOOD HOUSE, OUTTAKES FROM A MARRIAGE, and the memoir, AN INNOCENT, A BROAD.
Her work has been translated into eighteen languages and she has written for numerous publications including Ploughshares, NPR, Real Simple and the New York Times. Ann’s Modern Love essay, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” was adapted for the Amazon Modern Love TV Series and stars Tina Fey and John Slattery. THE GOOD HOUSE was adapted as a motion picture starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline and recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Her new novel, THE FOUNDLING will be released on May, 31, 2022.
Ann and her husband Denis Leary live in New York state with three dogs, a horse, and a pony named Pancake.