Publisher: Kensington Books
Publ. Date: Dec. 27, 2017
The first time I ever heard the idiom Magdalene Girls was when, in horror, I watched the 2002 film entitled “The Magdalene Sisters” based on the Magdalene Asylums also called the Magdalene Laundries. This is when I learned that teenage girls who were labeled “fallen” by their families (usually meaning they were unwed pregnant girls or girls that were discovered to have had sex before marriage) were sent to these asylums based mostly in Ireland. These asylums were run like prisons and the young girls were forced to hard labor in the laundries with Roman Catholic nuns from the order of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption as the prison guards and the Mother Superior as the warden.
I was then introduced to the song by Joni Mitchelle “Magdalene Laundries” with lyrics such as: “Most girls come here pregnant, some by their own fathers’, Bridget got that belly from her parish priest.” So, when I was given an Advanced Review Copy of “Magdalene Girls” I knew what to expect. I would not be reading the sweet story “The Trouble with Angels.” This would be a very difficult read based on true stories.
In V. S. Alexander’s historical novel the reader will find themselves in Dublin during 1962. The story centers around two 16-year old girls. One is from an upper-class family while the other is from the slums. Both girls were virgins, one (for lack of better words) could have been called a “fast girl,” while the other could have been called a “good girl.” The latter girl was woken up in the middle of the night to be dragged away by strangers to the asylum. Her crime was the parish priest was tempted to break his vows with her. Her sin, according to her alcoholic father, was that she went into the wine cellar with this priest which was proof of her wantonness. Throughout the beginning of her stay at the workhouse, she kept waiting for her supposedly loving parents to come get her, beyond heartbreaking. The “fast girl” was betrayed by her boyfriend. She also was taken at night, but she didn’t fight for she had non-caring parents and she was glad to get away from them, not realizing that her new home would be far worse.
In the novel’s plot, there were lots of visions of the Virgin Mary, usually after the girls’ had begun to lose their minds. There were also scenes about escape attempts, girls put in isolation (which was the common means of punishment), or the sadness of reading about the unmarked graves of the girls or their babies that had died there. And, even the visual picture of the cutting off of their hair was hard to read. Personally, the lyrics by Leonard Cohen “she tied you down in her kitchen chair…she cut your hair” in his song “Hallelujah” will forever remind me of these girls and not Samson and Delilah.
This novel does a good job of explaining the agonizing living conditions that went on in these institutions, all in the name of God. It is an excellent history of such an atrocity. In the author’s endnotes we learn that the first Magdalene asylums were opened in 1758 and they were not restricted to only Ireland. Named after Mary Magdalene the prisons were filled with prostitutes and unwed mothers with the theory that a lifetime of hard work on earth would free their souls in heaven. I guess for the 18th century that is understandable. What is impossible to understand is that the last of Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums did not close until September 25, 1996 (I googled the exact date), simply shocking.
Alexander wrote a good historical fiction. Yet, I was disappointed that I didn’t learn more on how this corruption of faith lasted till such recent times. One cannot miss the parallel of the long hidden of abuse of children by priests that did not become public until recent years. Just as the scandals with the priests, there has been a culture of secrecy surrounding the laundries. How did the church and the families of the girls keep such dirty secrets for so long? I guess I will need to do some of my own research in non-fiction books that have been written by Magdalene survivors. I know that there are a few out there. But first, I need to do some light reading to recover.
Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read