The Degenerates

S. & S./Atheneum. Mar. 2020. 288p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781534419353.
Gr 8 Up–Idiot. Imbecile. Moron. Undesirable. Feeble-minded. These are the words used to describe the students at the Walter E. Fernald State School, or the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, where Alice, London, Maxine, and Rose live. In 1928, anyone who was a threat to the gene pool or exhibited “unworthy” traits was rounded up and sent to these institutions. Alice has a twisted foot and was dropped off at the school by her brother after he was socially shamed while they walked down the street together. Maxine and Rose, who both have Down syndrome, were sent to the school by their mother, who had more children than she could care for. London, diagnosed as a high-grade moron, arrives at the school pregnant and in the back of a police wagon. Alternating chapters cover the various characters’ experiences in this rigorously structured school. While there have been stories written about the time period, little has been published that is as historically accurate and scrupulously researched about this kind of widespread institutionalization. Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein and Deborah Schaumberg’s The Tombs both center on women who were institutionalized, but with more fantastical elements.
VERDICT Although this is an additional selection for libraries that have large historical fiction readership, the diversity of the characters’ identities, across racial, gender, and the alarmingly blurred lines of “disability,” may garner a second look for some collections.

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