THE FOUNDING, by Ann Leary
In the introductory note to “The Foundling,” Ann Leary suggests a conundrum. How could an “early feminist” like Margaret Sanger — a pioneer of reproductive freedom, a tireless activist for progressive reform — proclaim in 1922 that “every feebleminded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period” and expect modern-thinking people to agree with her?
Sanger doesn’t appear in “The Foundling,” but her ghost haunts its moral landscape as the fictional Agnes Vogel, a psychiatrist whose crusade for women’s rights and social reform propels her to the directorship of the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age , a public asylum founded to kidnap “unfit” women so they don’t breed others like them. If that description rings of dystopian satire, it’s not. Leary was inspired by the experience of her own grandmother who, in the 1930s, at the age of 17, worked as a stenographer for the director of a similarly named institution in rural Pennsylvania.
Fear of wombs is nothing new. Every era seems to find its own way to regulate females so they don’t reproduce all over the place — and you will often find women at the forefront of such plans, fencing their vexingly fertile sisters from the menfolk. Those scientific-minded reformers of the progressive period called it eugenics; the Nazis took their lead to a horrific extreme. The Catholics were bitterly opposed — they already had institutions to wall up female chastity, damn it — and I suspect it is no narrative coincidence that Leary’s protagonist, the 18-year-old Mary Engle, has been raised and educated by nuns at an orphanage in Scranton, Pa., before she arrives at the Nettleton State Village to work as a secretary for the dazzling Dr. Vogel.
Leary doesn’t pull any Gothic punches. Our penniless young heroine glides past the wrought-iron Nettleton gates in a black limousine, down a “narrow, rutted road” that wraps, “twisted, snakelike, around huge boulders and rocky ledges.” She is housed at a crumbling caretaker’s cottage and put to work at a typewriter outside Vogel’s office, where her devotion soon earns her a promotion and a beautifully appointed guest suite in Vogel’s mansion.
A new world opens before Mary, full of shiny furniture and shiny ideas. She embarks on a daring friendship with Nettleton’s head nurse, the dashing Roberta Nolan — “call me Bertie” — that leads to a romance with a muckraking journalist, Jake Enright. Mary’s future dela gleams with promise, until she glimpses a familiar face among the Nettleton inmates. Lillian Faust grew up in the same orphanage as Mary and now finds herself milking cows on Vogel’s model farm not because she is feebleminded — she’s the opposite of that — but because she bore a child with a Black man.
Mary doesn’t awaken to the corruption at Nettleton in an instant. Her eyes dela open in flickers, because she is a human being and she does not want to see what is inconvenient to her own needs her, both materially and spiritually. Vogel’s motherly patronage offers rewards that seduce her compliance. But, as the doctor’s monstrousness reveals itself, Mary enters a baroque psychological dance. The weather turns cooler; the mood turns darker. Leary is in full command as the story spirals to the kind of harrowing climax — blizzard raging, phone lines cut — that forces Mary to stake her moral ground.
“The Foundling” is Leary’s first historical novel, and she has all the right instincts, by which I mean she inhabits Mary without modern concept. Yes, the speakeasy slang and the gin fizzes are there, but any competent hack can recreate the sounds and sights of the past. Leary does something more daring — she asks you to root for a protagonist who comes equipped with the orthodoxies of her own day. Engle isn’t some magically enlightened dream girl who sheds the pixie dust of contemporary social justice on the benighted bigots of yesteryear. She is on a journey, as we say, which gives her moment of reckoning her power. If “The Foundling” lacks the sly, delicious wit of Leary’s previous books, it’s only because Leary is such a virtuoso that she does not indulge herself at the expense of Mary’s characterization of her.
Back to the conundrum in the introduction. Our villain’s moral impulses are corrupted by good old-fashioned lust for power, while Sanger and most of her fellow eugenicists wanted only to harness science to make the world a better (in their eyes of her) place. When Leary aligns Dr. Vogel with the forces of cronyism and big business, she may be pointing a finger at her historical inspiration, or she may be serving our taste for a familiar bad guy. But Leary is too clever and too honest not to know exactly what she’s doing; “The Foundling” arrests us precisely because its antagonist comes cloaked in the good intentions of progressive social reform. Leary pins her cautionary tale on the portrait of Vogel herself and her iron conviction that she’s doing the right thing.
“The end very often justifies the means,” she tells Mary.
No revolutionary believes herself to be on the wrong side of history, after all. Book clubs, uncork your bottles.
Beatriz Williams’s latest novel is “Our Woman in Moscow.”
THE FOUNDING, by Ann Leary | 336 pp. | Marysue Rucci Books/Scribner | $27.99