Author Heckert has volunteered in the archives of what is now Doane Academy, which inspired her to write this novel about a group of Canadian girls from the St. Catherines, Ontario, area who came to what was then a girls’ boarding school, St. Mary’s Hall, in 1850s New Jersey.
The book follows the experiences of the girls attending classes and living in the dormitory. One gets into trouble for unladylike conduct when she swims in the river on a hot evening in her nightgown. Another girl must drop out to help her mother, who has what today would be called post-partum depression. The most memorable character is Margaret Jane, who longs to become a doctor. Her physician brother back home is skeptical of her ambition and is reluctant to let her go on rounds with him.
I know firsthand how many interesting items one can come across in a school’s archives, so I really wanted to like this book. Heckert deserves much credit for the amount of research she did. But facts gained through research do not a novel make. There are far too many passages displaying research that does not further the plot: irrelevant genealogy of minor characters, a minute description of the chapel, and passages where characters actually say, “Tell me more,” so that additional facts can be worked in.
There is little conflict to drive the plot. Except for Margaret Jane, the other girls are interchangeable; I had to refer to the provided character list to keep straight which girl I was reading about in that chapter. Alma Mater is interesting as far as the depiction of life in a mid-19th-century boarding school, but I’m sorry to say it is not satisfying as a novel. More editing would help.