The Degenerates

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Modern Age

The Degenerates
Author: Mann, J. Albert
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Time Period: Modern Age
Time Frame: 1928
Geographic Area: North America
Country: United States
Topics: eugenics, Asylums Institutionalization, LGBTQ+
Genre: Fiction
Reading Age: Young Adult, Adult
Format: Novel
Published: 2020

Content Warning
abuse, ableist language, miscarriage, infant death

American History > Modern Age > Eugenics

“Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Historical fiction that not only depicts a cruel, horrifying reality but also the strength and courage of the people who had to endure it.” —Booklist

In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized-and institutionalized them for life.

The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don’t think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn’t bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she’s ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life-altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.

Emily's Review

I loved this young adult novel about four girls institutionalized in the 1920s. The Degenerates is about the eugenics movement that became popular in the 1800s, which led to the institutionalization of anyone who was considered different. Their goal was to breed a "better" human, leading to atrocities like the school depicted in this story and worse things, like the Holocaust during World War II.

This story follows the perspectives of Alice, Maxine, Rose, and London, inmates of the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. The author did extensive research and used exact quotes from the doctors throughout the story, showing just how ugly history can be. I adored the characters in this story - they were all so strong and hopeful, even when the world refused to allow them to hope. The terrible language used by the doctors and attendants (all of which, as I said before, were direct historical quotes) made for sometimes difficult reading. But the girls at the center of the story - their friendship and love for each other - made it worthwhile. Each girl is distinct and well-written. London is my favorite of the four, just because she has such a fiery spirit.

This book is hard and honest, and sometimes, you will want to scream at the doctors and attendants. But it's well-written and well-researched and definitely worth your time.

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