Monday, October 28, 2019
Fiction Review: Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
Publisher's Blurb:An emotionally raw and resonant story of love, loss, and the enduring power of friendship, following the lives of two young women connected by a home for “fallen girls,” and inspired by historical events.
In turn-of-the-20th century Texas, the Berachah Home for the Redemption and Protection of Erring Girls is an unprecedented beacon of hope for young women consigned to the dangerous poverty of the streets by birth, circumstance, or personal tragedy. Built in 1903 on the dusty outskirts of Arlington, a remote dot between Dallas and Fort Worth’s red-light districts, the progressive home bucks public opinion by offering faith, training, and rehabilitation to prostitutes, addicts, unwed mothers, and “ruined” girls without forcibly separating mothers from children. When Lizzie Bates and Mattie McBride meet there—one sick and abused, but desperately clinging to her young daughter, the other jilted by the beau who fathered her ailing son—they form a friendship that will see them through unbearable loss, heartbreak, difficult choices, and ultimately, diverging paths.
A century later, Cate Sutton, a reclusive university librarian, uncovers the hidden histories of the two troubled women as she stumbles upon the cemetery on the home’s former grounds and begins to comb through its archives in her library. Pulled by an indescribable connection, what Cate discovers about their stories leads her to confront her own heartbreaking past, and to reclaim the life she thought she'd let go forever. With great pathos and powerful emotional resonance, Home for Erring and Outcast Girls explores the dark roads that lead us to ruin, and the paths we take to return to ourselves.
I'm not sure what prompted me to get this book from the library--I can't remember if someone recommended it, or if it was just on the front page at Overdrive and looked interesting. I'm glad I did, though there were times along the way when I wasn't so sure. The historic subject matter--the home for "erring and outcast" girls, who had babies out of wedlock or worked as prostitutes--meant that a significant part of the subject matter of the book was how and why the girls ended up in that condition.
The book has an overall two-part structure. The contemporary story is of the researcher who is delving into the records of the Berachah home, and becomes absorbed in the lives of the girls. The other story, of course, is that of the "erring and outcast" girls. That forms the bulk of the book, and divides into chapters from Lizzie's point of view and chapters from Mattie's. Though it's risky, the multiple points of view worked fine for me, anyway. Since the chapters are marked with the date and the name of the character (not narrator; all are 3rd person), there's no confusion about who and what we are reading about.
What worked a little less well for me--what felt too inevitable--was the way Cate's modern story meshed with the historic stories. I can't give details without giving too much away, but I found it just too much. And when another abused girl comes into her life... definitely too much.
Still, despite the flaws I was quickly drawn into the novel and wanted to keep reading at the end of each chapter. I was fascinated by the bit of history the author shows us--the Berachah home was real, and a rare mix of a compassion that allowed women to keep their babies even if they didn't have a father, and a strict religion that still marked even girls who were raped as "fallen" and in need of redemption. And yes, I wanted to know Cate's story.
The writing is strong and clean (free from awkwardness and editing errors), and the well-constructed story swept me along.
A good read. If you like historical fiction, this is a good example. Oddly, though, for a story that in many ways was about the complexity of human beings (see paragraph above about the essential internal conflict of the Berachah home), the author chose to present most of her female characters as having essentially the same struggle.
FTC Disclosure: I checked Home for Erring and Outcast Girls out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."