The Girls We Sent Away: A Novel

Image of The Girls We Sent Away: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Sourcebooks Landmark
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Meagan Church begins her historical novel about the Baby Scoop of the sixties in the summer of ’64 with a drowning. A child drifts to the bottom of a swimming pool unnoticed by the community of pool-goers and almost loses her life. That the sinking child is eventually rescued by the novel’s protagonist, Lorraine Delford.

The Girls We Sent Away follows one young high school senior who dares to dream of going into space before anyone had succeeded in doing so. From the promise of her personality, her hoped-for win as valedictorian of her senior class, and an abundant future, Lorraine falls abruptly to the status of a scorned sinner, exiled to invisibility in a home for unwed mothers.

In the days when marriage was referred to as wedlock, Lorraine goes steady with shy, unremarkable Clint, whom she’s known for several years. That she passively accepts him as her intended, mentally making plans for their lives together when she’s really attracted to Alan, lays the groundwork for her dreamy decision making and her clueless mistakes.

Clint seems to have only one note—how much he loves Lorraine—and invites her to a cabin in the woods for a “big secret surprise” he’s planned for her. It’s here, under Clint’s expression of “love” that Lorraine resists his insistence—but not enough to stop him and not enough to protect herself from becoming pregnant. As she plays back the interaction over in her head, she demonstrates a lack of awareness as a woman with agency. Not at all surprising, for the post-war late fifties and sixties.

Lorraine tells Clint she’s pregnant, and suddenly his love isn’t so ardent. After considering their limited possibilities as a teen married couple, after Clint struggles with his first semester of college in a different town, he suggests that Lorraine have a procedure. When Clint realizes he can’t pressure her to get rid of the pregnancy, he tells her, “If you want to keep it, you’re on your own.” And goes off to flirt with a woman he’s met at university.

When Lorraine breaks the news to her parents—no surprise here–they think only of securing their reputation as one of the families “at the top of the Sunnymede hierarchy,” “a family to be admired.” And guess what? She agrees to go to a home for unwed mothers, thinking this will solve her inconvenient problem. But the shoe drops in increments: she is bundled up to be sent off at dawn and admonished not to let anyone in her community see her leave. When her parents tell her to lie down on the floor of the family vehicle, it’s not unlike the child at the bottom of the pool.

At the home for unwed mothers, the rule-making matrons are predictably bossy and controlling, much like Lorraine’s mother, glossing over everything except that which is part of the “respectable above all” script. She’s forbidden to make friends, to confide in other women at the home, to know what their last names are or where they’re from.

Lorraine’s life suddenly begins to focus on cleaning toilets, napkin folding, and social graces. The logic is endlessly repeated, this too will be over and she will get back to her “future.” At first Lorraine thinks this is a good idea, however, as hormones course through her, as her baby begins to kick, even as she studies at the local library so she can finish high school, Lorraine begins to question giving up her child.

Written in an omniscient third person, the novel doesn’t entirely succeed in sharing the emotional intensity of this series of events. It does point up the lack of choice women suffer when they are in this uniquely vulnerable state and the surrounding society is driven to “succeed” in a man’s world.

It’s often difficult to believe that women allow themselves to be controlled by finger-wagging matrons and nagging parents, but this story maps the many ways that internalized social pressure has been powerful and effective against women. At this time in history, gender roles were reinforced with the ruling class of white men taking as much advantage as possible over unenlightened women. As much as this played out as aha! moments for women after they had gotten into “trouble,” to today’s reading audience, it’s known territory. Still, as predictable as this novel’s storyline is, it’s good to review how far women have come.

The author’s note at the end of the book is passionate and first-hand with insight and staggering figures of lives destroyed by The Baby Scoop. From 1945 to 1973, an estimated four million unwed pregnant women were sent to maternity homes—whose raison d’etre was not to support women in their time of need, but to take their newborns and place them into adoptive families and with couples who couldn’t conceive. The results were devastating for most women; the knowledge of the real emotional toll the disruption of such a primal event was not known or shared. Easy to read and follow, The Girls We Sent Away is one example of the experience of millions of women during an unenlightened time in history.