The Girls with No Names

Written by Serena Burdick
Review by Ilysa Magnus

Luella and Effie Tildon are wealthy young women growing up in the Inwood section of Manhattan in the 1910s. They have everything wealth offers to them: schooling at Chapin, beautiful clothes, a gracious home with servants. But their lives are also stifling.

Even before they discover a shocking secret about their father, Luella, the older sister, takes the pair on adventures, and they discover a camp not far from their home, on the shores of the Hudson River, where they are introduced to Romani culture, to what seems like more openness and freedom. Quickly, Luella becomes emboldened, and her response to her father’s infidelity is rebellion, punishable by being sent away to Paris. She refuses to go.

But when Effie wakes up soon after and finds Luella gone and her clothes and belongings still in her room, she suspects that her parents have sent Luella to the House of Mercy, an asylum where wayward girls are sent to learn the consequences of their actions. So tied are the sisters that Effie decides to “find” Luella and save her by becoming committed so that they can escape together.

Burdick’s tale of survival, courage and coming of age in early 20th-century New York is a must read. Told in alternating chapters narrated by the three focal women in the book, we learn the deep backgrounds of each of them, come to understand and appreciate them and feel the pain of their losses. Burdick has done a masterful job of researching the time and place: about the Romani people, about Inwood, and about the House of Mercy, which actually existed. Having lived in Inwood a while back, I felt a connection to the characters and to the neighborhood. I knew there was a reason I wanted to read this book!