In 1927, Mary Engle is a bit naïve for her 19 years, likely due to being raised in an orphanage. When she graduates from a secretarial course, she is thrilled to be offered a job at the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Mary is impressed by the institute’s head psychiatrist and (female!) superintendent Dr. Agnes Vogel and thinks if she saves money and goes to college, she might become a powerful woman in charge one day. Vogel is a believer in eugenics, and therefore is interested in controlling reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable, “desirable” characteristics. She leads Mary to believe that Nettleton’s residents have been confined because they are not fit for society, due to low IQ or loose morals, and that they deserve to remain incarcerated until they are no longer of childbearing age.
At first, Mary does not question Vogel’s practices, which include keeping wages from women who work outside of Nettleton, not allowing residents to correspond with their family and enabling bored husbands to institutionalize their wives.
Things change when Mary spots Lillian, a woman around her age that attended the same Catholic orphanage where Mary spent her childhood. Mary is sure Lillian has no mental disorder but is afraid she will lose her job if she admits to knowing her. Lillian, the title’s “foundling,” sees Mary as her way out but must first convince her how corrupt Vogel’s program really is. Can Mary save Lillian, whose life has taken a bad turn? Or does Mary have her own reasons for wanting to keep her past friendship with Lillian a secret?
The Foundling by Ann Leary is fascinating historical fiction that is based on the author’s own family experiences. Readers of well-researched novels and book clubs will appreciate this look at a dark chapter of our history and the crimes committed against women in the past by those in power. This novel kept me reading until the end to learn the fate of Leary’s characters who come to life between its covers.