In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized—and institutionalized them for life.
The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don’t think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn’t bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she’s ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.
When I read the synopsis of The Degenerates by J. Albert Mann, I knew that I had to read it. I have always been fascinated by the periods in our nation’s history when people were shunted and hidden away like this. Especially for it to be children. Given I tend to dive into dark topics anyway, this seemed right up my alley. And I’m happy to report that I was exceedingly pleased with the journey.
The Degenerates is a great story with both heartbreaking and beautiful moments. The topics themselves can be dark: mental illness, disfiguration, society and the burden of shame in the 1900s. But what Mann does so well is give each one of these issues a face and a name. These four girls, and points of view, are varied in their “illnesses,” and each holds their own voices and secrets. But throughout the book, they each also hold a lesson for us: that every one of us is human, no matter how different.
My favorite thing about this book is simple: Mann’s writing is immersive, emotional, and easy to read, all at once. Her writing infuses life into the history and people she writes about in such a personal way that I felt like I was in the story myself, living alongside, and sometimes within, these four, lost, young girls.
Overall, The Degenerates was a moving, intelligent, emotional, and powerful read. I enjoyed every page of it and I felt like it moved along at a pace that was both fun and dwelt just long enough in the hard places. Mann does a terrific job of bringing a period and place to life that I don’t see much of in literature, especially YA, and I commend her for that. I’ll be looking for her next work in the future.
J. Albert Mann is the author of six novels for children, with S&S Atheneum Books for Young Readers set to publish her next work of historical fiction about the Eugenics Movement and the rise of institutionalism in the United States. She is also the author of short stories and poems for children featured in Highlights for Children, where she won the Highlights Fiction Award, as well as the Highlights Editors’ Choice Award. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee.
Jennifer is represented by Kerry Sparks at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency.
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