What worked: Wowza, wow, wow. This is a powerful, gut-wrenching story of four girls that live in a state institution at the beginning of the 20th century. These included the disabled, marginalized, and those that were LBGT. Life was beyond horrific in these institutions. Readers see that world through the eyes of four girls. Each one of these individuals has her own unique story.
Maxine fights for her younger Down syndrome sister Rose. She has a secret that if revealed could mean even worse than being in the school. Alice has a club foot and is black. Her friendship with Maxine is one that helps her get by even when the bullies threaten them.
The real story though is from London. She's been through a number of foster homes, orphanages, and lives with an older woman. She also happens to be pregnant. After the police raid her apartment, she's sent to the institution. Her story kind of reminds me of my own Italian grandfather's stories of being a boy in a state orphanage in the early 20th century. My grandfather said no one should have to live through the horrific conditions he did. He shared his experiences only after our governor in the early 1980s suggested maybe reopening state orphanages.
In THE DEGENERATES London shows what is expected of those girls unfortunate to be living in the school. This includes brutal repetitious patterns that the doctors feel is 'best' for them. London shows spunk and determination. She's a real survivor who refuses to let the doctors and those in charge of the institution think she's subhuman. There's one scene with babies that is haunting. One of the doctors comes into the area and claims that the babies are not quite human and don't experience pain. The cruelty that some felt toward those that aren't 'the norm' is horrific.
At the end of the novel is a historical account of what was behind the basis of creating these institutions. How the social system rounded up the poor, disabled, marginalized( this included people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community) and institutionalized them for life.The idea behind this was called eugenics-the pseudoscience of human improvement through human breeding. Some earlier authoritarian leaders used this theory to justify their cruel and inhumane actions against groups of people.
Powerful, fascinating glimpse where those outside of so-called norms are sentenced to life in institutions locked away from the rest of society. But in this tale there is an underlining message of hope and determination. That hope and love can help one rise above terrible situations.