Evidence of V: a novel of fragments, facts, and fictions
by Sheila O’Connor
Rose Metal Press, 2019
reviewed by Seana Graham
Judging by the popularity of Henry Louis Gates’s PBS show Finding our Roots and genealogy websites like Ancestry.com, learning more about our ancestors is an interesting project for many of us. But though sometimes we learn surprising information about our ancestors, often we’re simply left with tantalizing hints—a document, a photo, a name. A gravestone.
Sometimes a search may be an attempt to find more specific answers. Sheila O’Connor delves into her own family background in order to understand why her mother wasn’t more bonded with her children. Many of O’Connor’s questions center on her maternal grandmother, who has virtually disappeared from the family history. Her quest began when, with the help of a court order, she and her mother were able to read the previously sealed records of her mother’s adoption. But though the sparse documents led her to some solid information, she found that she had to imagine the rest for herself.
Rose Metal Press is an apt publisher for her work, as it specializes in hybrid, non-conventional books. O’Connor presents her work in small fragmentary pieces, some fiction, some not. There are official records and old photos, lists and small fictional pieces that move the story forward. It’s a lovely book, set in the style of several fonts in use at the time of V’s story, which begins in the mid-thirties.
O’Connor writes the story on the basis of the best available evidence. If it may not totally represent the real young woman’s story, it is certainly very close to many such stories of the time. And it is definitely the case that V was a teenager when she was impregnated by an older man, that she ended up incarcerated in a home for delinquent girls, and that she was forced to give up her daughter for adoption.
In the book as well as in real life, V ends up in Minnesota’s Sauk Centre Home School for Girls, to which delinquent girls were committed by the courts. O’Connor’s dogged research finally bears fruit when she discovers a book documenting the incarceration of juvenile delinquents in the U.S. during the early 20th century.
Many of us have come to know of the horrors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and what happened to young women in them, but I would guess few yet know much about similar situations in America. ‘‘Delinquency’’ served as a justification to lockup all sorts of wayward youth, by no means always for criminal behavior. As underage people, they were held in various institutions until they were twenty-one. In the Sauk program, they were typically paroled into domestic service. Although many such institutions may have had benevolent origins, in practice they were often both cruel and compulsory.
It would be comforting to think that both the exploitation of young women and the incarceration of the innocent were only shadows from America’s past, but there are too many echoes of V’s story in our world today to avail ourselves of that illusion.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.