The fascinating and harrowing look at mental health institutions in the 20th century was both heartbreaking and enlightening.
Title: The Degenerates
Author: J. Albert Mann
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 17, 2020
Genres: YA Historical Fiction
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized—and institutionalized them for life.
The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don’t think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn’t bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she’s ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.
- I guess my one quick thought about this book is that… I have no quick thoughts. The themes, the plot, the character, they will all make you feel a lot of things. So let’s get into the lasting impressions.
This book is told in four different point of views, and I felt the author did an incredible job of fleshing each character out. Each character had a distinct voice with their own motivations, fears, and hopes. London’s story was probably my favorite, though each character’s story melds in with the others. Each was heartbreaking, but the end was full of hope.
The level of detail and research that went into this book is impressive. I wouldn’t call the prose beautiful, but it matches the blunt nature of this book—telling the story as is, as the history was (even though this is historical fiction, the author mentions that she lifted actual words of dialogue from her research and placed them into the book). There were moments I was fighting back tears, moment I felt physically sick because of the descriptions of the conditions all the women had to go through at the institution. It’s horrifying and disturbing. I applaud the author for telling such an incredible, wrenching story without sugarcoating even a speck of it.
I’m grateful for the chance I had to read this incredible historical fiction, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about what it might have been like for women in these awful “schools” in the early 20th century.
About the Author
J. Albert Mann is the author of six novels for children, with S&S Atheneum Books for Young Readers set to publish her next work of historical fiction about the Eugenics Movement and the rise of institutionalism in the United States. She is also the author of short stories and poems for children featured in Highlights for Children, where she won the Highlights Fiction Award, as well as the Highlights Editors’ Choice Award. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee.