Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Girls with No Names

Title:  The Girls with No Names
Author:  Serena Burdick
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0778309991 / 978-0778309994

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I lay with my cheek pressed to the floor, the cement cool against my spent rage."

Favorite Quote:  "We're all hurt and broken ... You're no different. You walk around with that sorry face, as if you're the only one's seen hardship. Have you tried looking at anyone else's face? Everyone in here's been put through the wringer."

Mary Magdalen was a follower of Jesus Christ and is said to have witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. Some have deemed her a saint. At the same time, history has often also labeled Mary Magdalen a repentant fallen woman. The Magdalen laundries or asylums were church-run institutions for the rehabilitation of "fallen" women. These institutions were prevalent in Ireland even as recently as the 1960s, but they were also found in many other places including Manhattan in New York. Life in these institutions was harsh, and the living conditions were abysmal.

The Magdalen Girls by V S Alexander tells the story of three young women at an institution in Ireland. The Girls with No Names is the story of two young women in a Manhattan institution in the context of their family stories. 

The New York Magdalen Society was founded in 1830 with the purpose of rescuing women from lives of prostitution and vice. A facility was established, named for the Inwood section of upper Manhattan where it was located. Girls were either brought by the police or committed by their families, usually for a period of three years.  That is the ill-named House of Mercy in this book. Interestingly, the organization still exists. In 2016, The Inwood House merged with The Children's Village. Now known as The Inwood House at Children's Village, the organization focuses on teenage pregnancy - education, prevention, and support for young women.

The other historical aspect of this book is the legacy of the Romani community in New York. The Romani arare an ethnic group, travelers. The term used in this book is "gypsy" as it is true to the time. However, currently, the term is considered negative and not used due to its connotations.

The story itself is about two young women - Effie and Mable, but primarily it is about Effie. Trigger warning:  This book has scenes of cruelty depicted.

Effie's story is about family, her illness, and a horrible misunderstanding. This misunderstanding and a child's rash decision - to have herself committed to an institution like the House of Mercy - becomes the basis for the entire rest of the story. The extreme nature of this misunderstanding and decision seems contrived and almost too convenient - if such a thing can be said about such a horrific situation. 

In addition, Effie's story incorporates her mother and her parents' marriage, her sister and her rebellion for independence, and an illness that at the time handed Effie a death sentence. This dilutes the impact of Effie's story at the House of Mercy as does the melodramatic ending. Mable's story is the stronger one as it relates to the history of this book, but her story is clearly secondary to Effie's.

Learning about the history is by far my favorite part of the book and the reason I love historical fiction. This is not history I might otherwise have come across, but reading it in fiction led me to research the actual history - with articles, survivor accounts, and photographs.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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