The Foundling a thoughtful and original piece of historical fiction, expands on a snippet of information from Ann Leary’s family about a time in the late 1920s when my home state, Pennsylvania, supported Laurelton Village for Feeble Minded women of Childbearing Age.” Her grandmother worked there for awhile, right when a US Census placed her there as an employee. The long since debunked, but popular theory of eugenics, relied on to justify wiping out whole classes of people by Adolf Hitler in Germany, held that society could benefit from selective breeding to promote desirable characteristics and from ensuring those with “problematic” characteristics did not procreate. In Germany, that meant Jews, Roma, gay people, Catholics, people with deformities, political groups and more.
In the early twentieth century in Pennsylvania, this meant that women who, e.g., were considered intellectually or morally defective, based on IQ tests for some and behavior for others. Women and girls could wind up in such a place for being prostitutes, having children out of wedlock or based on a husband’s or parent’s word that they were behaving in a manner that met the definition of feeble minded. And, at least in the fictional Nettleton State Village for Feeble Minded Women of Childbearing Age, such women were admitted and could never leave until they were unable to bear children. Dr. Agnes Vogel, a psychiatrist and rare female doctor at the time, runs “the Village.” She speaks widely on its mission, ensures that as a working farm and a purveyor of servants to local residents the Village is self-sufficient and she fiercely protects the reputation and acceptability of the Village.
Mary Engle, who lived in an orphanage until age twelve after her mother died, then spent the rest of her youth living with her aunt in Scranton. She has experienced a lot of childhood trauma from experiences with family when outside the orphanage, but generally recalls her time at the orphanage as positive. At 17, she has graduated from secretarial school. Her mentor at the school introduces her to Dr. Vogel and soon, she finds herself working an office job at the Village. When she spots a childhood friend from the orphanage working in the Dairy Barn at the Village, Mary is puzzled. Lillian is an inmate and Mary is surprised Lillian is feeble minded. Vogel’s speeches and discussions of her charges have fully won Mary over. Through the course of the novel, we learn about the experiences of those living on the Village property, as employees, as inmates, and the slippage between high minded morality about the mission of the Village and blatant disregard for even the recognized rights of the many women confined there, e.g. to food, shelter and personal security. We see the outside world evolving on the issue of eugenics, via a muckraker journalist friend to Mary. We recognize, as we often must, that those we trust in powerful positions may use them for ill while others, including people with power, can change, grow and find the right path forward.
Leary is a compelling writer and she creates an engaging story full of interesting characters, giving them challenges to meet or not. This was definitely a couldn’t put it down book. Will check out Leary’s other work.