The Myth of Surrender

Written by Kelly O'Connor McNees
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1960, pregnant teenagers, Doreen and Margie cross paths at Holy Family for the Wayward in rural Illinois. Though markedly different in background and temperament, they become allies in an alien world. When Margie’s time comes, Doreen becomes indebted in an unexpected way, and, suffering shame and guilt for her (in)actions, silently vows to do lifelong penance for Margie.

Legitimate vs illegitimate are subtly juxtaposed here—vulnerable girls (children in some cases) with out-of-wedlock pregnancies, coerced and manipulated with complicity by church and state. It’s a story of mothers and daughters, of life-changing faux-pas for which you will not be forgiven, of the shame brought upon family and community, that unforgiveable lapse in judgement never visited upon the father. The novel is also an exploration of secrets and lies, how church and family colluded to make decisions, supposedly with best interests in mind, without any input from the mothers-to-be, who were expected to move on with their lives as though nothing had happened.

The novel is two parts of a whole, first the girls’ pregnancies, and then the aftermath which is especially powerful as we follow their attempts to ‘move on’; but it speaks to second chances, that journey from grief to healing and forgiveness of ourselves and others. The lifelong effects of not knowing what happened to your first-born child are detailed with tenderness and care, but the read is often uncomfortable. Bravo to Ms. McNees for illuminating a mostly forgotten piece of history and for finding a precisely perfect title to convey her dedicated research. With details taken from historic interviews, the author departs occasionally from her fictional specifics to a wider universal ‘we’, paying tribute to the 1.5 million girls and women who were incarcerated in various institutions during the Baby Scoop Era, and who often surrendered their autonomy along with their child. An enlightening read.