February 02, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: OF BETTER BLOOD by Susan Moger

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: One day she's leaping in the waves near the family's Paradise-by-the-Sea beach home, the fittest of the fit, dreaming of finishing Little Women and having a new best friend; the next moment her lower body is numb and unresponsive and she's so terrified that she can barely breathe, and cannot speak... polio in the 1920's stole many children's lives and liveliness just that quickly - but it stole didn't just steal Rowan Collier's legs, it stole her family - because the Colliers are charter members of the Betterment Council, an organization which encourage people to come in and fill out information about their family histories, their family trees, and see if they're "fit" to breed. Rowans father and sister have made their mark on society, writing eugenics articles and doing research regarding the burden of the feeble-minded and the unfit on American society. As Colliers are nothing but fit, Rowan now simply cannot be one. The disease steals her name, as her father abandons her to be taken into a hospital for orphaned children for care.

No name, no home, no hope -- Rowan withdraws into a silent bubble of shame and pain in the hospital until a caring physician comes along, who revives her spirit, and reminds her to take care of herself. She flourishes under his care, but her older sister, Julia takes even that away from her, in the name of sending her to a Betterment Society doctor... who pressures Rowan to be sterilized. Now, at sixteen, Rowan's not heard a word from her father in five, long lonely years. Her "livelihood" - a cot in a tent and at least two meals a day - is earned through work as an actress in a play. She lives the role of Ruthie the unfit cripple who drops the baby. At night, she is imprisoned with the group of the "unfit," locked away as a sideshow freak for the Betterment Council's traveling show. Dorchy, an orphan carney girl who is employed by the leaders of the freak show, thinks "fit to breed" is a crock. She's determined to use her con-woman skills to find her uncle, and restart her life on the Midway. With nowhere to go, and without the protection of her father's name, Rowan must escape from an uncomfortable situation with the show which rapidly becomes dreadful. When Rowan and Dorchy go on the lam, Dorchy revives her con-artist carney ways to get them money and leverage, but Rowan fears that the two girls are too different to go the same direction. They make a plan, a pact, each giving the other courage as needed. The two of them find themselves working as staff at an island summer camp in Maine. Camp Loup is a Betterment Society camp for orphaned unfit children -- but though the Betterment Council representative makes many promises, it quickly becomes apparent that this situation is worse than their last. An influenza has swept through, and many of the campers have died -- and still more are dying, of the 'flu, or of the cold-eyed doctor's so-called cure? Rowan and Dorchy must survive the camp's directors, the island, a storm long enough to escape, and let the world know the truth about what's going on at Camp Loup. At the last Rowan must stand - on her own two, polio-weakened two legs - against how she was raised, and decide how she wants to use what she knows to make a difference.

Observations: The information in this novel about eugenics, "fitness" and "betterment" movements throughout the United States through the 1920's-30's is a little explored region of pseudoscience, and it's usually only dug into in YA lit in reference to how it was practiced in Germany during the Jewish genocide. However, it's an American science, and it's something which informs the historical treatment of the poor and those with mental health issues in this country, and should shape how we respect those populations today. There are myriad German doctors who make appearances in the novel, but the author is unstinting in her revelations and lets no one off the hook - everyone who was of a privileged or upwardly mobile class was interested in eugenics, and everyone - even Civil Rights activist and N.A.A.C.P. founder W.E.B. DuBois - believed that Americans should be somehow better. DuBois wrote eloquently about "uplifting" the race, chiding African Americans to be aware of and rejecting of the unfit within their own race. Eugenics wasn't a German mistake, it wasn't merely the furtive study of some mad scientists in a Frankensteinian laboratory somewhere: this was mainstream supremacist ideology supported by thinkers such as Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling, Marie Stopes, Robert Heinlein, HG Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Woodrow Wilson, and George Bernard Shaw. It was virally infectious in a country which feared contagion from the lower classes, from other nations and the pollution of their ideas as well. There's plenty of history here to sink one's teeth into in this work of historical fiction, and readers may come away wanting to find out more.

With that in mind, the narrative aspect of this novel - of Rowan and Dorchy - is less arresting, as the girls' emotional resonance doesn't have as much time to develop. Still, Rowan's many falls and her dependence on her crutches, her weariness with her disabilities and her occasional despair rings all too true. Readers may find it unbelievable that there was no one to whom she could go for help. Still, Dorchy's strong friendship, and the risks and terrors of the girls' escape catches the heart, and will help readers identify more personally with the history and information that they read.

An author's note at the end of the novel emphasizes a strong takeaway message about ignorance and the abuse of power masquerading as "thought" and theory, "I wrote Of Better Blood to emphasize the danger of policies in which people are categorized, isolated, and eliminated for political ends," the author writes. This is a timely reminder in an election year, for sure.

Conclusion: A horror story told in matter-of-fact prose, the story of eugenics, "fitter families," and "better baby" contests is a history that led American medical health facilities to atrocities like the Tuskegee Experiment, forcibly sterilizing women in mental institutions and a wave of negative attitude and abuse against poor families with many children. It is the shame of medical history that we at times abused the poor and weak and those who needed help and support the most. This novel clearly shows what evil happens when good people do nothing, and will give a horrified shudder to a science-minded reader, and be a good jumping off place for a lot of discussion.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Albert Whitman Teen. After February 1st, you can find OF BETTER BLOOD by Susan Moger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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