Thanks to NetGalley and Atheneum Books For Young Readers, for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: March 17th, 2020
Synopsis: 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.
The setting for Degenerates was actually an institution in Massachusetts which operated from 1888-2014. Sadly, the eugenics movement during the 1920s was big in my hometown state and the appalling conditions at places like the Fernald State School and the Belchertown State School in my opinion remain a blight on the state. I won’t go into the history of the movement and schools, but there’s a wealth of information to be found online.
As for Degenerates, Mann has done a thorough job researching what it was like for these unfortunate children and adults who were locked up in these despicable places. Seen through the eyes of four girls: Maxine, her sister Rose, Alice, and London, it gives the reader an up close and personal look at what life was like for these prisoners. While the four of them come from disparate backgrounds, they find they have much in common as they do their best to survive in this hellhole. Although the majority of secondary characters are pretty much stereotypical caricatures, it doesn’t really matter because in just the first few chapters you can’t help but be totally invested in the main characters and what they’re subjected to.
I have to be honest and say this isn’t the easiest book to read. In addition to the overall disgusting and despicable conditions at the school, there are difficult scenes, most notably, fourteen-year-old London having a miscarriage after being severely beaten by policemen. The ableist language used by the school staff and unfair testing on the residents had me despising these so-called medical professionals. Keeping all this in mind, Degenerates is a thoughtful exploration of what life was like for victims of the eugenics movement, and it’s a book I highly recommend for older YAs and adults.