My fiction selections include one from a debut novelist and another from an established, award-winning writer. Both engaging reads left me with reading hangovers. You know–that state of post-reading wonderment where even days later, the characters and their stories, those told and those left untold, linger in the reader’s imagination?
Interestingly to this reader, both novels also share themes of compulsory penance as well as the effects of isolation, and the role of women in society.
NO SPOILERS AHEAD. Book titles are linked to Amazon.
The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander, published by Kensington, 2017. 294 pages.
In this historical novel set in Dublin, Ireland, 1962, V.S. Alexander brings readers into the world of the Magdalen Laundries. Once a last stop for young women who found themselves pregnant without a husband or benefactor, or those arrested for petty crimes such as prostitution or stealing, or just pretty little victims of circumstance or gossip. It’s no boarding school either. The Magdalen Laundries are locked prisons or asylums–except prisoners would have more rights than the Magdalens.
When Teagan Tiernan, a pretty sixteen year-old from an upper middle-class family, is implicated in tempting the new priest, handsome Father Mark, it is Teagan who is sent to The Sisters of Holy Redemption, a convent in which girls and women are locked away to slave in the laundries. Most lose their will to live and spend the rest of their lives there.
Nora Craven arrives shortly after Teagan. She is there as a consequence for being caught alone with a boy in her family’s home. Nora comes from a rougher neighborhood than Teagan, and seems likely to give the nuns a run for it. The two girls bond and vow to escape.
They also meet a mysterious girl at the convent named Lea who has talent that can only be described as otherworldly.
As a matter of routine, the girls at the laundry are put in uniforms, and have their hair chopped off. They are also nearly starved, beaten, isolated, and worked to death in a veritable sweat shop. They may not speak to one another at any time except on the rare day off. They are under the complete control of the nuns, with Sister Anne, the Mother Superior, holding the whip. Not all the nuns are characterized so brutally as Sister Anne. Some are bitter old women carrying out orders. Others are sympathetic characters who believe they are doing God’s will.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that in 1962 women had such little value that their futures were determined by the whims of their guardians. I thought we left this kind of grim misogynistic society long behind us.
But author V.S. Alexander sets the record straight. And yet does so without impugning the Catholic Church as a whole. In the Author’s Note, Alexander writes that these laundries also operated under the control of other groups–both secular and religious. Furthermore, these asylums were not just in Ireland, but also other civilized countries such as England, Scotland, Canada and the United States up until 1996. Mind officially blown.
This novel reminded me much of Jane Eyre–an absolute favorite. From the setting of the prison-like convent with gates and locks and hidden passageways and a black chamber called the Penitent’s Room, to the madwoman in the attic so to speak, and even to the secret graveyard, fans of Gothic literature rejoice. THE MAGDALEN GIRLS will satisfy your craving for fiction that is based on truth that is stranger than fiction.
Thankfully for this reader, V.S. Alexander is at work on a second historical novel.
The One-In-A-Million Boy by Monica Wood, Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 320 pages.
In this charmer of a novel, Monica Wood writes about a boy who is unlike most. The reader senses this eleven year-old is on the autism spectrum–he is extremely high functioning intellectually, but can’t seem to relate well to others his own age. He has some idiosyncracies such as counting and collecting. He’s also a huge fan of the Guinness Book of World Records.
This reader is guessing the boy has Aspberger’s Syndrome. As I was reading, I could picture a specific student I taught over two decades ago as the one-in-a-million boy–that is how well Wood captures the spirit of a three-dimensional child on the black and white page.
But autism or Aspberger’s doesn’t matter a whit to 104 year-old Ona Vitkus, a woman from Lithuania for whom the local boy scout leader has delivered her a scout/helper so she can get things done around her house and yard. The boy is working on his merit badges, but finds Ona to be his own personal treasure. And she finds in him, someone who listens with rapt attention to her incredible life stories.
Interestingly, Wood never names the character of the boy. Nor does she identify his challenge by its formal diagnostic term. She merely chronicles the way the boy was in the world for eleven, too short years.
Short because the boy unexpectedly dies before the end of the first Act, so to speak. Gone but not forgotten, the boy becomes the linchpin who brings two other flawed but likeable characters into Ona’s life. The boy’s twice married, twice divorced parents:
- His father, Quinn Porter, a man who has been chasing the rock and roll dream for his entire adult life and, for this reason, has been a disappointment as a dad and husband.
- And the boy’s mother, Belle. a librarian whose life revolved around her love for her son–a wife and mother who finally gave up on Quinn being the father he needs to be or the husband he should have been.
And so, Quinn assumes the rest of his son’s committment to work around Ona’s house as a sort of penance. But something funny happens on his way to making good on his promise. He comes to care for Ona, and in doing so, learns a lot more about the boy who was his son than he ever thought he could.
Quinn also finds that beneath the gruff exterior of a the aged, is a life rich in love, loss, disappointments, bad decisions, spectacular rebellion, and the stubborn tenacity that keeps some of us above ground for an inordinate number of years.
And so, Ona, Quinn and Belle are three lost souls who find in their shared grief, a life raft of sorts. Of course, being in a life raft, isn’t without its dangers and challenges–of which, there are many in this deceptively simple yet profoundly rich novel.
The One-In-A-Million Boy is a one-in-a-million novel that is at once entertaining and poignant enough to rouse tears in the most jaded reader. Just try to get through the climax without reaching for a tissue–go on, I dare you.