The Degenerates by J. Albert Mann. Atheneum, 2020. 9781534419353
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4
Genre: Historical fiction
What did you like about the book? The lovely cover drew me to this story set at the Fernald School in the 1920’s. Life and friendship in an institution that warehoused people whom society deemed “other” – people who were poor, pregnant out of wedlock, “homosexual”, disabled and the mentally ill. The story follows four girls, on the cusp of being sent from the girls’ wards to the hospital for women when they turn 15. Maxine, “feeble-minded” and “unnatural” in her attraction to girls, her sister Rose, a “moron”, Alice, an African-American girl with a clubfoot, and London, a “dago” who is pregnant. All were either abandoned by their family or are orphans. The point of view shifts between these four girls, illuminating their thoughts about one another, the ways they cope with the horrible treatment at the institution at which they have been dispatched for life, and their memories of their origins. The matter-of-fact style of writing gives a compelling picture of the human toll of inhumane care. I appreciated the author’s note about the school and the 19th century practices dealing with mental illness, as well as a substantial bibliography.
Anything you didn’t like about it? The author used a tone that came across as a dispassionate observer, and at times it was at odds with the passions of the characters. In addition, the author used both modern and historically informed slang, and it was jarring to this reader. For example, “This sucks” on the same page as “whoresacks.”
To whom would you recommend this book? For ages 14 an up. Historical fiction readers will enjoy this book. Trigger alert for cruel punishments at the institution.
Who should buy this book? Middle and high schools and public libraries.
Where would you shelve it ? Teen fiction
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Stephanie Tournas, Robbins Library, Arlington, MA
Date of review: January 8, 2020