An idealistic North Carolina social worker defies her employers to save impoverished children from overzealous social engineering in Chamberlain’s well-researched page-turner.
Chamberlain’s author’s notes point out that from 1929 to 1975, North Carolina’s state-fostered Eugenics Sterilization Program sterilized thousands of women and men. Her novel, set in 1960, examines the impact of such interventions on a tiny, almost feudal enclave of tobacco farmers. Two narrators represent opposite poles of Southern society. Against the wishes of her doctor husband, Jane Forrester, a recent college graduate, has taken a job in Raleigh with the Department of Public Welfare. Ivy Hart, 15, is struggling to keep what is left of her family intact. Her father, Percy, was killed in an agricultural accident. Davison Gardiner, who owns the farm where the white Harts, and their black neighbors, the Jordans, live and work, allows Ivy, her diabetic grandmother, and her beautiful and mentally challenged sister, Mary Ella, to continue occupying their shack rent-free. Gardiner regularly supplements their paltry wages (and welfare checks) with food donations, presumably out of guilt over Percy’s accident, although Ivy’s mother, who is institutionalized, scarred Gardiner’s wife in a fit of rage and grief. As the Harts’ newest caseworker, Jane soon finds herself in an ethical quagmire. At DPW’s instigation, Mary Ella, mother of 2-year-old William (father unknown), was involuntarily sterilized in the hospital after his birth. Ivy is sneaking out at night to meet Gardiner’s son, Henry Allen. By the time Jane realizes that Ivy is several months pregnant, she has succumbed to departmental pressure to petition for Ivy’s sterilization on the grounds of childhood epilepsy and low IQ. Once Ivy delivers her child, she will suffer the same fate as her sister, unless Jane is willing to buck the system at the expense of her career. The stakes mount to dizzying heights (even for such an isolated pocket, Gardiner’s unbridled sway over his tenants seems extreme); Chamberlain certainly knows how to escalate tension.
Socially conscious melodrama at its best.