The Foundling by Ann Leary is a historical fiction novel that explores the use of eugenics in the United States in the 1920’s. (Eugenics is considered an immoral theory in today’s world – with the goal of eliminating social ills through sterilization or imprisonment. In the 1920’s eugenics was popular and accepted by many.) The novel does have episodes of abuse and uses accepted “labels” of that era, which are considered inappropriate today. Ann Leary explains her use of the labels in a ‘Forward’ at the beginning of the novel.
Mary Engle has accepted her first job as a secretary at the Nettleton State Village for “feeble-minded women.” Her new boss is the brilliant and beautiful Dr. Agnes Vogel, a leader in the suffragette movement and seemingly dedicated to her patients. As Mary spends more time in her new position, she finds that the asylum is not what Dr. Vogel claims. Many of these women do not seem “feeble minded” at all – and they are set to be imprisoned there for over 20 years. Mary makes friends with the staff nurse, Bertie and also discovers that a friend from her childhood, Lillian, is a patient at Nettleton. Soon the three women will be trying to escape the institution together . . . but will they all make it?
I really liked this novel, but I was really frustrated with Mary’s reluctance to take action when she saw what was happening at the institution. I suppose Dr. Vogel was SO powerful and popular that going against her seemed overwhelming to Mary. There was lots of action in the second half of the novel and I very much loved the ending!