Not in recent memory have I read a book that so thoroughly both disgusted and fascinated me. What made my gut clench the most was the knowledge that although this book is fictionalized, it is representative of actual historical events, and they happened more recently than I would like to think about.
The main action begins in 1960. Jane is an idealistic 22-year-old newlywed, who takes a job as a social worker despite having landed a pediatrician for a husband. He would prefer she stay home like his friends’ wives, cooking meals and attending meetings of the Junior League. Instead, Jane dons galoshes over her saddle shoes and traipses through muddy tobacco fields and across rickety bridges to reach her clients, who live in conditions Jane hadn’t imagined existed.
She is inexperienced and makes plenty of mistakes, but her genuine care and interest in her clients’ lives allow her to build some measure of trust with them. However, her tender heart and active involvement lead to her coworkers’ scorn and criticism. The situation comes to a head when Jane’s stolid conscience butts up against her supervisor’s directive to pursue forced sterilization of Ivy, a 15-year-old client.
To Jane, the Eugenics Program sounds eerily similar to the rhetoric spouted by Nazi Germany. Her coworkers, acquaintances, and even her own husband, however, believe that Ivy has no business having more children, since they will most likely grow up to be “simple-minded” and poor, like her. A tubal ligation, disguised as an appendectomy, will keep Ivy from creating more mouths for taxpayers to feed in the future.
Chamberlain does a fantastic job of keeping this story firmly in the gray area where real life takes place. As a current foster parent, I know that trying to determine if a person is fit to raise a child is not a simple matter. Deeming some individuals unworthy of procreating in the first place is an egregious abuse of power indeed. And let me state again: this book is based on events that actually occurred. In the United States of America. As recently as the 1970s. If you’re not totally pissed yet, well—
Bottom line: Read this book, and get your dander up about injustice.