by CHRIS ROGERS
If Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” imagines a dystopian future where women are punished for men’s sexual transgressions, Sheila O’Connor’s “Evidence of V” unearths the very real history of it in Minnesota’s not-so-distant past.
In the 1930s, O’Connor’s grandmother was subjected to the widespread practice of locking “immoral” and “incorrigible” girls away at juvenile detention centers and keeping them on parole until age 21. Her grandmother’s alleged crime? “Apparently, being pregnant with my mother as a 15-year-old and unmarried,” O’Connor said.
The accomplished Twin Cities-based author, professor, and former Winona State University student spent years scouring historical records for any information on her grandmother. It was something O’Connor's mother knew little about herself until O’Connor and her mother petitioned a court to unseal records about her mother’s adoption. “It wasn’t until we got permission from the court that I began to understand or have the first glimpse,” the author explained.
So much of her grandmother’s story was lost or buried that O’Connor tells her story “in fragments, facts, and fictions.” V is the main character in O’Connor’s novel, one whose story resembles O’Connor’s grandmother’s. O’Connor fleshes out V’s story with fictional scenes: the abusive father V stayed away from home to avoid, the fizzy drinks at a nightclub where 15-year-old V chased dreams of becoming a star singer, and the gifts V got from a 35-year-old nightclub manager with whom V thought she had an earnest romance.
Amongst the fictional scenes, O’Connor sprinkles notes from her grandmother’s file, excerpts from delinquency laws, and statements from the authorities charged with re-educating “immoral” girls. O’Connor quotes the superintendent of the Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre describing the goal of her institution: “its purpose the making of decent wives and mothers and house-makers.” Tucked away in brackets and sometimes in poetic verse, the author adds her own voice as if snippets from a researcher’s notes or diary entries. She asks questions to which she will never know the answers: “What does V want at fifteen if not motherhood and marriage? / To have her worthy talent acknowledged by the world?”
O’Connor’s approach makes readers feel like detectives trying fit pieces together and fill in the gaps alongside the author. “I never had more than pieces for this story,” O’Connor explained. “I realized that so often when we’re doing this work within our families or within history, cohesive narrative is very difficult to come by, and what felt to me like a fragmented puzzle where pieces were always missing was the form I wanted the book to mirror.” She continued, “I think the form, for many readers, reminds them of their own lives and the way they have these spaces in their own lives that will never be filled because the information is missing.” It was the best that can be done. “When these girls were silenced, their stories were silenced, their history was silenced. There will not be a way to know everything that happened to them … The records were recorded by the people who had the power to speak for the girls, not the girls themselves,” O’Connor stated.
Seaching for traces of V and her then-infant daugther at the site of the former Home School for Girls, O'Connor writes, "I want to tell them how it turns out for our family ... That I have done my best to find them, sealed and erased. Dead or dying. Memory or not. I have tried to tell their story, the story of us all."
Part of O’Connor’s hope in sharing her grandmother’s story is that the family members of other girls subjected to the same treatment will share their stories. There might be some local history to recover. The children and teens sent to labor at the Minnesota Home School for Girls were later paroled as house servants at private homes, including homes in Winona, O’Connor reported.
In V’s story, a 15-year-old girl is punished for becoming pregnant, and the 35-year-old father never faced consequences for his exploitation of V. Minnesotans might like to things are very different today. Don’t think the re-victimization of young women by the criminal justice system is ancient history, though, O’Connor said. “Girls are still being sentenced for minor offenses. They are still being sentenced to institutions where they have very few rights as minor girls,” she stated. “I think we should remain concerned about the treatment of women and girls in the criminal justice system,” O’Connor said. “What do we know now about what’s happening to girls? … What are the situations in our society now where girls are blamed and punished rather than supported, and why do perpetrators go free when girls carry the weight of what has been done to them?”
For more information on “Evidence of V” and to share stories about family connections to the Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre with O’Connor, visit www.sheilaoconnor.com.