One of the best novels I’ve read in 2013, hands down, and I’m kind of floored that I haven’t heard all that much about the book apart from conversations locally (because I live in the state this is set within, even grew up and interacted in the cities it had taken place.) While this novel is historical fiction, the setting and terms of events in this novel as depicted is very real. I can’t stress that enough to anyone who might pick up this novel to read.
To say I’m horrified at reading some of the stories behind this particular novel is a significant understatement. I remember hearing about it very briefly in years past, but it’s only received more media attention during the past several years as the hearings have come to light and how Governor Beth Purdue, during her term of office, advocated financial compensation for the victims of this.
The North Carolina Eugenics Program was an institution that authorized the forced reproductive sterilization of thousands of people who were mentally ill, living in poverty, or otherwise compromised for supposedly the “greater good.” There were children, adults, and the elderly, men and women, Caucasian and POC populations who were subject to these sterilizations, and it wasn’t until the 1970s this respective division of the North Carolina government was disbanded and the procedures stopped. But the damage spanned far greater time than that, and not until recent years (2011-2012) that hearings were held so that the victims of this process could potentially receive financial compensation for these horrific proceedings.
This book takes place in the early 1960s and trades primarily between two perspective points. First there’s Jane, a social worker and the wife of a prominent pediatrician who gets a job as a social worker. There’s a bit of expansion on Jane’s struggles as a woman with a position of power during this time. She struggles even being able to get birth control and she’s frowned upon in her well-to-do society for working with African Americans and the poor and even holding a job versus being a stay at home mother.
The second perspective is Ivy, a young 15-year old girl who suffers from petit mal epilepsy and struggles while living on a tobacco farm with her family. Her elder sister has already had one child and was under “evaluation” by social workers with her son (called “Baby William”) and potential motherhood. But when Ivy’s secret relationship with the son of the family overseeing hers leads to her pregnancy, it opens a can of worms that mean Ivy’s and Jane’s lives cross more intricately than before. And suddenly Ivy, even at 15-years old, is thrust into this procedure that threatens not only her ability to have children in the future, but also threatens to tear her family apart with one blow after another.
I was impressed with the level of characterizations and the genuine voices of the characters throughout this novel. I’ll admit this was a frustrating read for me because it showed a high level of racial tensions and dialogue as well as contrast for women’s roles, but the novel shows the period and place of this novel very well for its respective setting. There were times when Jane frustrated me, but even with being a flawed protagonist, she was very headstrong and determined to do what she felt was necessary to help Ivy’s family. The problem is that there were many factors in play that lead to some horrific tragedies surrounding the women. The novel has quite a few emotional curveballs in the personal lives of the women in addition to setting the moral and ethical violations of the Eugenics Board’s practices.
I did feel for Ivy’s family, but they also made me want to throw the book at them for so many different things. Even with their flaws – I felt I understood their emotions and dilemmas as they came to light. The last 20% of the novel really gutted me for events as Jane and Ivy make one last stand before events hit a collision course, then follow up years after that heart wrenching event. It ties up with a better conclusion than I expected, but the scheme of events tied up well for showcasing the fates of the characters.
I especially appreciated the author’s end notes and interview talking about the research into the novel and some of the statistics and facts surrounding the sterilzations and cases that happened in real life. If you can, read some of the testimonies/stories of the victims of this – it’s eye opening and quite frightening to the level of what the Board did and for just how long they went on.
Highly recommended reading and a great narration in the audiobook version by Allison Elliot.
Overall score: 4.5/5 stars