'The Foundling' finds parallels with today

·4 min read

Aug. 13—Coming up with a strong ending is said to be the hardest part about writing a novel. By that criterion alone, Ann Leary's "The Foundling" is worth reading, because it features a unique and powerful finish.

"I did a book tour, and quite a few people wanted to talk about the ending," Leary said.

Of course, no one would reach the end if the rest of the story wasn't compelling, and that is also the case in this tale of lost innocence, first love and faith.

Leary, who moved to Marblehead from Wisconsin when she was 14, attended local public schools before enrolling at Dana Hall, a private school in Wellesley. She attended Emerson College where she met her husband, comedian Denis Leary, in a comedy writing class that he was teaching.

Leary's first book, "An Innocent, A Broad" from 2005, is a memoir about her experiences as a first-time mother while living in England. That was followed by three novels, "Outtakes from a Marriage" from 2009, "The Good House" from 2013, and "The Children" from 2016.

"The Good House" was made into a film that will be released in September and stars Sigourney Weaver as a Realtor from a fictional town on the North Shore, whose romantic interest is played by Kevin Kline.

"The Foundling," which was published in June, tells the story of Mary Engle, a poor girl who was raised by an aunt and uncle after her mother died.

Mary gets a job as a secretary at the Nettleton State Village of Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age in Pennsylvania, and is eventually asked to work directly for Dr. Agnes Vogel, the institution's director.

It is 1927, when women physicians are rare, and Vogel is an impressive public figure who mingles with powerful people.

But as Mary gains Vogel's confidence and assumes greater responsibilities in her job, she also starts to ask questions about the institution where she works and those who run it.

As Leary explains in a preface, "The Foundling" started while she was researching her family's genealogy to discover how her maternal grandmother had become an orphan.

"I never did find out," Leary wrote. "There's no record of her birth or childhood homes. But I did find her in a 1930s federal census record. She was 17 years old and working as a stenographer in a large Pennsylvania institution called the Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age."

That awkward name attracted Leary's attention, so she decided to do some research, and is "still obsessed" with what she discovered.

"Laurelton State Village was not a training school for young women with intellectual disabilities, as I had presumed," Leary wrote. "During the years my grandmother worked there, it was a eugenics asylum, one of many in this country."

Eugenics was racism posing as science, and it influenced Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Eugenics was a movement to "improve" society by eliminating supposedly undesirable elements, who usually belonged to some ethnic or religious group that the people in power didn't like.

In "The Foundling," the undesirables are women, who have been sent to work camps under the pretext that they have mental and emotional disabilities. They are kept there until they reached menopause, so they can't have children, just like in real eugenics asylums.

But far from being perceived by the American public in the 1920s as a cult or a hate group, eugenic theory was accepted as common sense.

"It was the law of the land," Leary said. "It was embraced by everybody."

The reader discovers the reality of Nettleton through Mary's unfolding awareness, as she types letters and files reports, and meets a young reporter who asks pointed questions.

Mary's own experience as an orphan, before she found a home with her aunt, makes her curious about the women at the asylum. Her growing suspicions about Nettleton reach a turning point when she sees that Lillian Faust, a girl she knew at the orphanage and the foundling of the book's title, is being held there.

Leary said that, along with being pleased with the ending, many readers of "The Founding" saw parallels between her story and current events.

Eugenics was partly a response to immigration trends in the 1920s, she said, and has echoes in anti-immigrant politics today.

"The Foundling" is also a portrait of a society in which women are deprived of control over their own bodies.

"Since the book came out, the Supreme Court made this decision that reversed Roe versus Wade," Leary said. "My book isn't about abortion. It doesn't have anything to do with that. What it does have to do with is government assumed responsibility over women's reproductive rights."