In Boston in the late 1920s, to be sent to the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded meant you would be living at the school forever. Young people came to the school in different ways; 14-year-old London was dragged away from the best foster care situation she had ever been in. She's also pregnant, considered a "moral disability" at the time, and is determined to not stay at the school for long. Maxine is protecting her younger sister, Rose, who has Down Syndrome. Maxine has also been diagnosed as a homosexual, then considered a medical condition. Finally there is Alice, who was brought to the school by her brother because she has a clubfoot. The girls, living in the regimented school, eat on a schedule, walk the circle on a schedule, and attend classes that are far from academic. London manages to break out a couple of times, only to be returned and placed in isolation. The three girls finally realize they must escape for good, and devote all their energy to the task. When Rose develops rheumatic fever, London stays back to care for her while Maxine and Alice manage to escape and find London's previous foster mother. Did London and Rose escape? Readers will wonder, and hope that they did. The descriptions of life inside of this particular institution are amazingly sad, and the historical notes provided let readers know that not only was this school a real place, it was operational for 166 years, finally closing its doors in 2014. The dialogue from the doctors and nurses is taken from actual written statements found in patient records from the early 1900s which the author repurposed. Although the ending of this novel is open-ended, the realities of life as a person deemed as having a disability in this time period will shock and anger readers. The included Historical Note and the Author's Note will add perspective to the story and make the actions of the characters more understandable. Also included is a bibliography which provides additional information on the history of these kinds of institutions and how disabilities have been handled in America over time.
In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized—and institutionalized them for life.
The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don't think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn't bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she's ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.