Review: "The Foundling", by Ann Leary

THE FOUND CHILD, by Ann Leary In the introductory note to “The Foundling”, Ann Leary suggests a riddle. How could an “early feminist”...


THE FOUND CHILD, by Ann Leary


In the introductory note to “The Foundling”, Ann Leary suggests a riddle. How could an “early feminist” like Margaret Sanger – a pioneer of reproductive freedom, a tireless campaigner for progressive reform – proclaim in 1922 that “every feeble-minded girl or woman of hereditary type , especially of the cretin class, should be separated during the reproductive period” and expect modern people to agree with it?

Sanger does not appear in ‘The Foundling,’ but her ghost haunts her moral landscape as the fictional Agnes Vogel, a psychiatrist whose crusade for women’s rights and social reform propelled her to the leadership of Nettleton State. Village for women of childbearing age. , a public asylum founded to sequester “unfit” women so that they do not reproduce others like them. If this description sounds like dystopian satire, it isn’t. Leary was inspired by the experience of her own grandmother, who in the 1930s, at the age of 17, worked as a stenographer for the director of an institution of the same name in rural Pennsylvania.

The fear of wombs is not new. Each era seems to find its own way of regulating females so they don’t breed everywhere – and you’ll often find females at the forefront of these plans, separating their extremely fertile sisters from the males. These scientifically-minded reformers of the Progressive period called it eugenics; the Nazis took their advance to a horrible extreme. Catholics were fiercely opposed – they already had institutions to wall off female chastity, damn it – and I suspect it’s no narrative coincidence that Leary’s protagonist, 18-year-old Mary Engle, was raised and educated by nuns in an orphanage. in Scranton, Pennsylvania, before arriving at Nettleton State Village to work as secretary to the dazzling Dr. Vogel.

Leary pulls no gothic punches. Our penniless young heroine glides past the wrought-iron gates of Nettleton in a black limo, down a “narrow, rutted road” that winds, “twisted, snake-like, around huge boulders and rocky ledges “. She is lodged in a crumbling gatehouse and put to work at a typewriter outside Vogel’s office, where her dedication soon earns her a promotion and a beautifully appointed guest suite in Vogel’s mansion.

A new world opens up before Marie, full of shiny furniture and brilliant ideas. She embarks on a daring friendship with Nettleton’s head nurse, the dashing Roberta Nolan – “call me Bertie” – which leads to a romance with a muckraking reporter, Jake Enright. Mary’s future shines with promise, until she glimpses a familiar face among the Nettleton inmates. Lillian Faust grew up in the same orphanage as Mary and now finds herself milking cows on Vogel’s model farm, not because she’s weak-minded – she’s the opposite of that – but because she has had a child with a black man.

Mary does not wake up to the corruption in Nettleton in an instant. Her eyes flicker open, for she is a human being and does not want to see what is inconvenient for her own needs, both material and spiritual. Vogel’s maternal patronage offers rewards that seduce her compliance. But, as the monstrosity of the doctor reveals itself, Mary enters a baroque psychological dance. The weather is getting colder; the mood becomes darker. Leary is in the driver’s seat as the story spirals toward the kind of harrowing climax — raging blizzard, downed phone lines — that forces Mary to stake her moral ground.

“The Foundling” is Leary’s first historical novel, and she has all the right instincts, which is to say she inhabits Mary without modern vanity. Yes, speakeasy slang and gin fizz are here, but any competent hack can recreate the sounds and sights of the past. Leary does something bolder – she asks you to seek out a protagonist equipped with the orthodoxies of her time. Engle is not some magically lit dream girl throwing the pixie dust of contemporary social justice on the blind fanatics of yesteryear. She is on a journey, as they say, which gives her a moment of realization of her power. If “The Foundling” lacks the sly, delicious wit of previous Leary books, it’s only because Leary is such a virtuoso that she doesn’t indulge at the expense of Mary’s characterization.

Let’s go back to the riddle of the introduction. Our villain’s moral impulses are corrupted by a good old-fashioned lust for power, while Sanger and most of his fellow eugenicists only wanted to harness science to make the world a better place (in their eyes). When Leary aligns Dr. Vogel with the forces of cronyism and big business, she can point to her historical inspiration or she can serve our taste for a familiar villain. But Leary is too smart and too honest not to know exactly what she’s doing; “The Foundling” stops us precisely because its antagonist comes masked by the good intentions of progressive social reform. Leary pins her cautionary tale on portraying Vogel herself and her iron belief that she is doing the right thing.

“The end very often justifies the means,” she told Mary.

No revolutionary believes himself to be on the wrong side of history, after all. Book clubs, uncork your bottles.


Beatriz Williams’ latest novel is “Our Wife in Moscow”.


THE FOUND CHILD, by Ann Leary | 336 pages | Marysue Rucci Books/Scribner | $27.99

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