So today I present my first KO in the Title Fight Reading Challenge 2016 (which I happen to be hosting), with a historical middle grade fiction novel about eugenics and what it means to be different. I received a copy of Of Better Blood by Susan Moger from the publisher via Netgalley and I will be submitting it in category five of the Title Fight Challenge: a book with an injury (or something implying an injury) in the title. I think “blood” fits quite nicely there, don’t you?
Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Teenage polio survivor Rowan Collier is caught in the crossfire of a secret war against “the unfit.” It’s 1922, and eugenics–the movement dedicated to racial purity and good breeding–has taken hold in America. State laws allow institutions to sterilize minorities, the “feeble-minded,” and the poor, while local eugenics councils set up exhibits at county fairs with “fitter family” contests and propaganda. After years of being confined to hospitals, Rowan is recruited at sixteen to play a born cripple in a county fair eugenics exhibit. But gutsy, outspoken Dorchy befriends Rowan and helps her realize her own inner strength and bravery. The two escape the fair and end up at a summer camp on a desolate island run by the New England Eugenics Council. There they discover something is happening to the children. Rowan must find a way to stop the horrors on the island if she can escape them herself.
What an interesting mash-up of genres and issues this story is! What begins as the story of a young girl overcoming disability, family bigotry and exploitation morphs into a ripping murder-mystery, fight-for-survival-on-an-isolated-island, survivor type tale. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale (although the end third of the book was by far the most exciting), because it seemed to cover all the bits and pieces that I like to see in middle grade fiction.
Rowan starts off as a privileged white girl from a rich family that has a vested interest in the eugenics movement. When Rowan develops polio and loses the use of one of her legs, not only does she have to overcome pain and isolation, but also silence from her father who seems to have abandoned her in her “weakness”. This early part of the story flicks between Rowan’s present-day travails – in which she is forced to play “Ruthie”, the crippled simpleton daughter, in a travelling carnival show that touts the ideals of the benefits of eugenics – and her life before. We are privy to the abrupt change in affections of Rowan’s father toward her, and the parade of medical professionals – some sympathetic to her plight, some not – to whom Rowan is subjected during her recovery.
During her time in the Fitter Families show, Rowan meets Dorchy, a rowdy, independent girl from a carnival family, and this friendship drives the rest of the novel. The relationship building here is done sensitively and will really appeal to female readers of the target age group. Though the girls come from different socioeconomic backgrounds (as will become apparent later in the book), they are possessed of a similar undaunted spirit and the desire to make their own ways in the world.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the action-packed turn that the last third of the book would take (despite the fact that it’s flagged in the blurb), but it drew me in completely and I desperately wanted to know how it was all going to end up. Two young girls alone on an island with a bunch of orphan kids, some reclusive caretakers, a very rich woman and her daughter and a doctor at the “cutting edge” of eugenics technology? What could possibly go wrong?!
This section of the story really brings home the point that the author is trying to make about this period in history and the dangerous attitudes that can be fostered when we try to place labels on those we think are unfit or unhelpful to society. Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy the period details here, while general readers of middle grade will appreciate the pacey plot and the continuous changes in the girls’ situations.
So for a first bout, this one certainly came out in my favour! If you’d like to know more about the Title Fight Reading Challenge (and sign up!) just click here. I’m also submitting this book for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenged hosted by Escape with Dollycas:
You can check out my progress for that challenge here, if you’re interested.
Until next time,