Kullberg offers a debut historical novel set amid the illegal sex and abortion trades of mid-20th-century Portland, Oregon.
When 16-year-old Mae Rose’s mother, the proprietor of a shabby rural Oregon rooming house, dies during an illegal abortion, Mae is left alone in the world. She makes her way to Portland, finding that, at the height of the Great Depression, no one in the big city cares whether an orphan girl lives or dies. After nearly starving in the streets, getting sexually harassed by a potential employer, and briefly falling under the sway of a brutal pimp, Mae meets her friend and savior, a beautiful, mixed-race, opium-addicted prostitute named Trudy. Mae’s short, rough life has shown her that men will always treat her as a sex object, so she decides that she might as well take control of the situation and earn some good money. She and Trudy become popular call girls among the corrupt political and business elite of World War II–era Portland. After falling in love with a polio-stricken investigative journalist and receiving an illegal abortion from real-life society figure Ruth Barnett, Mae quits sex work to become Barnett’s assistant. This position gives her a firsthand view of the persecution of abortion providers in the reactionary postwar era. Kullberg’s novel is a clear polemic: she wants to illuminate the conditions that preceded the legalization of abortion in the United States and to highlight the contributions of pioneers such as Barnett. Even the greatest polemic novels—such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935)—can’t avoid making heavy-handed plot points, as Kullberg’s does. Still, the author’s sensitive portrayal of Mae and other young women as they face dire situations humanizes the narrative: “So profoundly had she been excavated,” Kullberg writes of Mae after her abortion, “she felt neither relief nor regret. Only a spooky absence of sentiment, as though her feelings had been scoured out as well.” Ultimately, the nuanced characterization and social message serve each other, reaffirming the idea that the personal is indeed political.
A historical novel whose empathetic view of women’s lives—and the decisions they face—is welcome in any time period.