Maria's Pick: "The Foundling" by Ann Leary
This historical novel was inspired by the author’s grandmother, who had worked at an institution for mentally disabled women in the 1920’s.
The main character, Mary Engle, lived in an orphanage for her first twelve years of life before she went to live with not-so-welcoming relatives. When she was eighteen, she was excited to land a job working as a secretary at the Nettleton State Village for Feeble-minded Women of Childbearing Years.
Despite its stellar reputation and her awe for the institution’s director, Dr. Agnes Vogel, Mary begins to question the purpose of this place. When she discovers that a friend from the orphanage, Lillian, is being held at the asylum against her will, Mary realizes that all is not as it appears on the surface.
During the Eugenics Movement of the 1920’s, which supported the idea of selective breeding to weed out undesirable genetic stock, women who were considered unfit for motherhood were involuntarily placed in these institutions until they could no longer bear children. Some of these women were placed there by their husbands, who wanted to remarry or by the courts after an arrest for prostitution or just by family members. They had no rights and were often treated abysmally.
As Mary discovers the dark truth behind the place, she becomes determined to help her old friend, but it is no easy task. What follows is a fascinating story based on a little known part of American history.