Mann (What Every Girl Should Know, 2019, etc.) tackles the eugenics movement of the 1920s.
Students of the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded—disabled, gay, Indigenous, and other marginalized people—never graduate. Categorized as idiots, imbeciles, and morons, these “degenerates” are subject to strict routines, cruel punishments, and menial labor. But street-wise, cynical orphan London—unmarried and pregnant—is sure she can escape. However, when she reluctantly befriends Maxine; Maxine’s younger sister, Rose, who has Down syndrome; and Alice, who has a club foot, she realizes that more lives than hers are at stake. Each teen’s perspective unfolds in alternating third-person chapters. Maxine’s forbidden mutual attraction to Alice mingles with hope, homesickness, and shame. Alice, who is singled out for harsher punishment for being black and lesbian as well as disabled, doesn’t dare express love. Though Rose’s portrayal skirts the “cuddly disabled child” trope, she’s refreshingly savvy. A heavy plot contrivance notwithstanding, the author portrays the movement’s prejudice, racism, and violence with brutal realism; an author’s note explains that the doctors’ dehumanizing dialogue comes verbatim from real medical notes. Crucially, she reminds readers that such prejudice still exists. She also explains all named characters’ diagnoses, which range from hydrocephalus to autism, and considers her own spinal disability and white privilege. Maxine, Rose, and most secondary characters appear to be white. London, who has southern Italian origins, has a dark complexion.
Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening. (historical note, author’s note, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 14-18)