Saturday, January 19, 2019
The Magdalen Girls- V.S. Alexander
My first fiction of the year, and it was everything I look for in a novel.
The best kind of fiction, in my opinion, makes me feel something. It entertains, of course, and it educates, but above all, it stirs up deep emotion. The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander does all of that.
Narrated by several characters, The Magdalen Girls is set in Ireland in the early 1960's. Teagan Tiernan is 16, navigating life with an alcoholic father and a doormat mother, only to find herself the object of the new parish priest's lustful attention. Nora Craven, a more headstrong teenager, throws herself at the boy who just dumped her, meeting the wrath of her sharp-tongued parents when they walk in on her. Through no real fault of their own, both girls end up tossed away like so much garbage at the Magdalen Laundry of the Sisters of the Holy Redemption, forced to slave away in silence in terrible conditions, with no pay, inadequate food, where every last bit of their identity is stripped away and they are reminded of their status as sinners at every step. Teagan and Nora befriend each other, bringing another girl, Lea, a favorite of the nuns, into their confidence as well.
Escape plans are hatched, implemented and foiled; the entire community and all of society views them the same way as the Sisters do, as irredeemable trash whose only hope is to work themselves to the bone in order for God to forgive them. They're starved, beaten, burned, sprayed with freezing water, all in the name of God and redemption. Tragedy follows the girls at every corner, and while redemption does finally come for one, it's at a terrible, terrible cost.
The Magdalen Girls brought tears to my eyes and made my hands shake with rage. I'd known about the laundries before I read this book, but not quite the full extent of their horror. Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up, but- shocker- we were never taught about these. I first learned of them when they were discussed on a parenting messageboard I participated in in my early 20's (at that point, I hadn't considered myself Catholic for some time), and was horrified. And my horror has only grown the more I've learned about them.
Apparently, sexual sin in Ireland at this time was akin to murder, and even sexual thoughts were enough to condemn a young girl. While some of the women forced into the laundries were prostitutes, others were rape or incest victims; still others were so pretty that they were considered at risk for sexual sin and were locked away on that charge alone. Pregnant women were forced to give their babies up for adoption- there was no other option- and some women were imprisoned in the laundries for life. Those who were allowed out found themselves ill-prepared for life on the outside, with no education, no job skills, and no social skills, since the nuns forbade talking. Many, if not all, left more damaged (physically, sexually, and emotionally) than when they first entered.
When I was twelve, Sinead O'Connor performed on Saturday Night Live and ripped a picture of the Pope at the end of her song, and it was all anyone could talk about at school the next day. She was universally condemned by the elders who surrounded me, but even back then I had questions about her motives. And once I learned that she had spent time in a Magdalene laundry, suddenly, it all made sense.
This book is everything I look for in fiction. It sent me down a path, Googling everything I could find about the laundries. I watched one documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, and bookmarked another for when I get time, The Forgotten Maggies. I read article after article after article after article, tearing up, shaking with unabashed fury at the injustice of it all, at a Church so quick to condemn women simply for the sake of being female, and at the utterly complicit society who bought into it all. For a work of fiction to do that, to give voice to so many who were silenced for far too long, that's a powerful thing, and this is absolutely a book that needed to be written.
V.S. Alexander is a pen name of author Michael Meeske; you can visit his webpage here and follow him on Twitter here.