The Girls With No Names by Serena Burdick is set in 1910’s New York City, a time when it was legal, and common practice, to imprison women for anything considered an ‘immoral act’. This could be anything from prostitution to a young girl caught kissing a boy. More horrifying than these laws were the facilities where the unfortunate girls and women were sent. They differed slightly from area to area. Some kind, but many housing pregnant and unwed mothers, criminals, orphans, destitute, and mentally insane females all together – all receiving same treatment. All imprisoned.
The Girls With No Names refers to The House of Mercy, a Protestant Episcopal home for wayward girls. This was modeled after the Magdalene Laundries, a group of religious facilities spread across the county claiming to take in and reform girls and women for immoral acts of sexual nature. They were in fact horribly cruel prisons using the women as slave labor to run their commercial laundry. The church of course pocketed the profits.
The story begins with sisters Effie and Luella stumbling through the woods, trying to find their way home in the dark. Typically under the constant watchful eye of parents or servants, the girls had sneaked off to follow music they’d heard in the distance. Finding a gypsy camp along the river running through the wood near their home Luella, a classically trained ballerina, became fascinated with the music and beautiful gypsy dancers – so unlike anything she’d experienced before. Awakening a yearning for freedom and adventure she could not ignore.
They enjoy a wonderful few months sneaking off to spend time in the gypsy camp, until Effie comes home one afternoon to find Luella gone. Assuming their father discovered their interaction with the gypsies and sent Luella to The House of Mercy, Effie devises a plan to bring her home.
What follows is a year long journey to reunite the family, with many harrowing and heartbreaking moments along the way.
I enjoyed this story and recommend for anyone interested in 1910’s New York, women’s rights, or the bond and loyalty between sisters.