the foundation , by Ann Leary
In the introductory note to “The Foundling,” Ann Leary suggests a riddle. How could an “early feminist” such as Margaret Sanger–a pioneer of reproductive freedom, and a tireless activist for progressive reform–declare in 1922 that “every weak-minded girl or woman of the hereditary kind, and especially of the idiot class, should be separated during childbearing” “And we expect the modern thinkers to agree with it?
Sanger didn’t appear in The Foundling, but her ghost haunts her moral scene as fictional Agnes Vogel, a psychiatrist whose crusade for women’s rights and social reform led her to run Nettleton State Village for vulnerable women of childbearing age. , a public shelter established to isolate “unqualified” women so that they do not have others like them. If this description rings dystopian satire, it isn’t. Leary was inspired by the experience of her grandmother who, in the 1930s, at the age of seventeen, worked as a stenographer for the director of an enterprise of a similar name in rural Pennsylvania.
Fear of wombs is nothing new. Each age seems to find its own way of organizing females so that they do not breed everywhere – and you will often find women at the forefront of such plans, annoyingly fencing off their fertile sisters from men. These scientifically minded reformers of the progressive period called it eugenics. The Nazis took the initiative to an appalling extent. Catholics were vehemently opposed—they already had institutions to encircle female chastity, damn it—and I suspect it’s no narrative coincidence that Leary’s heroine, 18-year-old Mary Engel, was raised and educated by nuns in an orphanage in Scranton, Pennsylvania, before arriving in the village of Nettleton State Village to serve as secretary to the impressive Dr. Fogel.
Leary doesn’t pull any gothic hits. Our penniless young heroine glides through the wrought-iron gates of Nettleton in a black limousine, along a “narrow, winding road” that winds, “twisting, snake-like, around massive boulders and rocky ledges.” She is housed in a ramshackle car-care cottage and assigned to work at a typewriter outside Vogel’s office, where her devotion soon earns her an upgrade and a beautifully appointed guest suite at Vogel’s mansion.
A new world opens before Mary, full of bright furniture and bright ideas. She embarks on a daring friendship with Nettleton’s chief nurse, Roberta Nolan – “Call Me Bertie” – which leads to a romance with scheming journalist, Jake Enright. Mary’s future shines with promises, until she catches a familiar face among Nettleton’s inmates. Lillian Faust grew up in the same orphanage as Mary and now finds herself milking cows on a model Vogel farm not because she is weak-minded—she is the opposite—but because she has given birth to a child by a black man.
Mary does not wake up to corruption in Nettleton in an instant. Her eyes open in a twinkle, because she is a human being and does not want to see what is inappropriate for her own needs, both material and spiritual. Vogel’s maternity care offers rewards that entice her compliance. But, as the doctor’s brutality reveals itself, Marie enters into a baroque psychic dance. The weather is getting colder. Mood becomes darker. Leary is in full command because the story is about some kind of horrific climax — a blizzard raging, phone lines cut — that forces Mary to cling to her moral ground.
“Bastard” is Leary’s first historical novel, and she has all the right instincts, I mean, she inhabits Mary without modern ego. Yes, there is spoken slang and gin hums, but any competent hack can recreate the sounds and sights of the past. Leary does something even more daring – she asks you to root for the protagonist who comes equipped with the orthodoxy of her day. Engel is not an enlightened dream girl who magically removes the fairy dust of contemporary social justice on the oppressed fanatics of the past. She’s on a journey that, we say, gives her a moment to appreciate her strength. If “The Foundling” lacks the deliciously malignant brilliance of Leary’s earlier books, it’s only because Leary is so creative that she doesn’t indulge herself at the expense of Mary’s characterization.
Back to the puzzle in the introduction. Our villain’s moral impulses are spoiled by old-fashioned lust for power, while Sanger and most of her fellow eugenicists only wanted to harness science to make the world a better place (in their eyes). When Leary aligns Dr. But Leri is too smart and too honest to know exactly what she’s doing; “Bastard” arrests us precisely because his opponent comes disguised as the goodwill of progressive social reform. Leary comments her cautionary tale on Vogel’s own image and her firm belief that she is doing the right thing.
“The ends often justify the means,” she told Maryam.
No revolutionary believes she is on the wrong side of history, after all. Book clubs, open your bottles.
Beatriz Williams’ latest novel is Our Woman in Moscow.
the foundationBy Ann Leary | 336 p. | Mariso Rocci Books / Writer | $27.99