"Four times a day I drop the baby." That's about as powerful a first sentence for a novel as you can get. This is the kind of novel (of which I read an advance review copy) that makes it worth plowing through a host of drab and sub-standard ones. This one took me to a new place, and that's what it's all about. Set in 1922, sixteen-year-old Rowan Collier immediately takes the stage - and quite literally. She's an actor in a "play" designed for the sole purpose of promoting eugenics. Note that while I loved this novel, I never said it was easy to read, or that there were no horrible things in it. Be warned.
The novel is historical fiction, but it is historical. The main elements of the tale told here are fictional, but the Aryan roots running through it were not only a tragic fact that led right into Nazi pogroms, those same dangerous, unscientific, and idiotic beliefs run through a certain segment of society today, hidden only under a thin veneer of civilization.
This is yet another first person PoV novel - and with flashbacks, to boot! Normally I don't like either of these, but in this case it worked. It wasn't intrusive. It didn't keep reminding me that I was reading a novel, and I'm grateful to the author for that. The novel was not only readable, it was captivating. The two main characters, Rowan and Dorchy are illuminated with the consummate artistry of a medieval scribe. You cannot help but want to know everything that happens to them. I would pick this novel up intending to read a quick chapter, and find myself still sitting there, glued to the screen, five chapters on.
Rowan first appears as an actor, after a fashion, and dropping the baby doll is her job. She has to show to the audience how incompetent and inept - how unfit - she is as a human being, but this is not how life began for her. Rowan began life without any handicap, not even poverty, but now she has one, thanks to polio, so naturally she plays a teenage handicapped girl in this play performed at a fair. Even today religious ignorance would have children prevented from being vaccinated against this this scourge with the same horrific results Rowan endured.
There's no sympathy for her condition, or for the condition of the character she plays, Ruthie-who-drops-a-baby. Even off the stage the people she's with think of her as thirteen-year-old incompetent Ruthie. The play is titled "Unfit Family" and is clearly written by an ardent fan of the eugenics movement. Just as things were getting interesting, though, I was suddenly snapped back to 1914, which I resented! The seesaw whiplash effect pervaded the first few chapters, but soon, and surprisingly, I grew used to it. It takes quite a bit to have a first person PoV novel, with flashbacks, and make me like it, so this was a good sign!
Despite the crippling scars polio left her with, or more accurately, precisely because of these scars, Rowan is an exhibit of the New England betterment Council, of which her sister Julia is an avid member, as was her dad, who has not been home since he went off to fight World War One. The problem is, she's not a member in good standing, and that isn't meant as a sick pun. She's really a possession, now. In her father's absence, which might be better described as his non-benign neglect, and her sibling's cold indifference to her kid sister's plight, Rowan ended up not staying at the hospital where she had been slowly making a recovery, but at a cruel and sick home for "the crippled" where the only treatment she got was maltreatment. Being a prime exhibit of what's wrong with humanity was, therefore, actually a step-up from that, for Rowan.
Rowan's real recovery begins when she meets Dorchy, a feisty carny girl, who brings Rowan out of her shell and the two become firm and fast friends. But the deck is stacked against these two, and life hasn't done dealing them spades yet. Their story continues and seems to be downhill until a remarkable turn-around enters, stage right, engineered solely by the girls and some friends. This is both a heartening and a heart-breaking read, but I think this - or something like it - ought to be made as compulsory as sterilization was for those "unfit" children. They who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Eugenics had some surprising adherents, such as Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling, Marie Stopes, Robert Heinlein, HG Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Woodrow Wilson, and George Bernard Shaw, and some not so surprising, such as Adolf Hitler. By the time this pogrom had been curtailed in the USA - and not until the 1970s, believe it or not - some 60,000 people had been sterilized. This is an engrossing way to learn a little about those pernicious and self-serving attitudes, even if it is fiction.
The real story here though is young adult power. Rowan and Dorchy are their own law and their own powerhouse. Refreshingly, the author seems to have instinctively understood this and left them to it, and it worked. They didn't need some guy to validate them or fix them or save them. There were some guys, and one was even named Jack, but they were friends, and that's all they needed to be. This story was about Rowan's strength, and about her admirably taking charge of her own destiny, and anything that buried her in a romance would have destroyed the power of this story. I whole-heartedly recommend this as a worthy read.