A truly haunting and literary debut. Telling the story of a clash of faiths, societies and a struggle against a system that is as mindless as it is heartless. In 1957 Dublin, Ireland, Marian McKeever is a newly minted teacher, and substituting a job at Dublin’s Zion School in the Jewish quarter for world travel. She meets, falls in love with and gets pregnant by Ben Ellis, a rising star journalist, and a Jew. Filled with a sense of shame for having done ‘the dirty deed’, and proving herself a bad girl because ladies waited. She allows herself to be castigated and further shamed by her uncle, a newly minted priest.
He convinces her that not only did she commit the sin, but with a Jew at that, and interfaith marriages never work, even if he’d have her. Further, it would be unfair to confront the young man and demand he do the right thing, for this reason and also for the simple fact that even were he Catholic, he would always resent her. Her uncle convinces her, actually demands, that she take a long ‘vacation’ with him, and so she does where she is housed in a catholic Mother Baby Home to have the child and give him up for adoption.
As her delivery date draws near, she is brow beaten and convinced by one of the crueler sisters to come up with ₤100 pounds, a princely sum, to insure the baby is adopted by an American family and taken to America where they won’t care he was born in sin and is of mixed race. She comes up with the price. This is no simple home for unwed mothers. Sister Paulinus and Sister Agnes never miss a chance to “purge the sins” of those who have entrusted themselves to their care. The quarters are Spartan, nearly penal with all outside contact cut off and any comfort taken away. The women are made to labor, even as they grow large as their dates arrive. They are made to mow the lawn by pulling it by hand, to scrub the floors on hand and knee.
The story segues ten or eleven year into the future and Marian is now married to Ben and they have a young daughter, Johanna. Ben is a successful journalist on a Dublin paper and the couple has settled into a comfortable middle class life. Their spirited daughter is learning about the heritage of both of her parents as she is not accepted by either of their extended families. Then, one day, as mother and daughter arrive home, they see a person in the uniform of a nurse scurrying away from their mail box. At first Marian tries to discount this persons appearance at their home to Johanna, but as she reads the note left by “Nurse”, a simple and slow witted woman from the Mother Baby Home, she learns that her son, Adrian was not adopted to a rich American family and in fact sill resides at a near by orphanage where he is badly treated and under fed. Thus begins the fight to regain possession of her son, and she must fight the Catholic nuns who shun the child's mixed blood, but alternately wish to profit from returning him to his family. Ben is lukewarm to the idea, even though he loves his son, but doesn’t want the boy to interfere with his perfect family, especially his cherished daughter.
As Marian learns more deeply the extent of the abuses the children undergo in the home, she becomes more determined to regain her son. Adrian, happy to have a family, and especially happy to have a little sister, has a hard time adapting to the world around him as brutality is thoroughly taught, but manners and the way to act in public are not.
The story is narrated, and it is probably 80% narration which works very well for this story, and is gut wrenching as it details Marians struggle not only with the nuns and brothers at the orphanage, but with the legal and social system that seems to want to throw her son away. She also must battle with her husband, who is torn between love and a desire to maintain the status quo.But Marian is obsessed to gather her son back into their family. When Adrian graduates to an “industrial school” and is surrounded by deeper and more permanent cruelties, sexual abuse at the hands of the brothers, and the other young boys, and is seemingly deserted by the laws and society the fight becomes desperate.
Henry not only succeeds in shining a light into a not so distant past in a society struggling to modernize itself, but on how one societal misstep can mark ones life forever. It also shows the evils of religious and social intolerance, and how power, left unchecked, can perpetrate unspeakable cruelties on the very foundation of a nation, its young. She also goes into the shadows of the orphanages and the brutal warehouses they can be, that house the unwanted children on the world. Marians seemingly futile struggle to protect and regain possession of her son makes the reader feel the pain of a mother who is helpless to protect her child. She is driven to the edge of madness, but still holds true to a course of not abandoning her son again.
The prose are gripping, and almost poetic in their emotional depth, the research is concise and accurate, and the story haunting. The characters, even when pitted against each other, are likeable and their point of views understandable and easy to empathize with and their foibles only make them more real to the reader. Perhaps, more than any one thing, what the story teaches is the evils that can come to life when good people remain silent in the face of societies norms. A debut novel that holds the promise of a long and meaningful career as a serious writer. Bravo!
Deborah Henry attended American College in Paris and graduated cum laude from Boston University with a minor in French language and literature. She received her MFA at Fairfield University. She is an active member of The Academy of American Poets, a Board member of Cavankerry Press and a patron of the Irish Arts Center in New York.
Curious about the duality of her own Jewish/Irish heritage, Henry was inspired to examine the territory of interfaith marriage and in so doing was led to the subject of the Irish Industrial School system.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved
Article first published as Book Review:The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry on Blogcritics.