What would you do to reunite with a beloved sister? Very few of us—encountering the choice that faces Effie Tildon in The Girls with No Names, released this past Tuesday—would go to the lengths Effie does. As the book’s author, Serena Burdick, explains in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, Effie is somewhat naive. That’s understandable, given that she’s a protected thirteen-year-old whose beloved older sister, Luella, has disappeared without a trace—or so it seems to Effie.
But Effie’s choice has dire consequences. The child of a well-off Gilded Age family, Effie comes up with a plan to secure her own commitment to New York City’s House of Mercy, a home for wayward girls and women. She does this because she’s been raised all her life with the bogeyman-type threat that bad behavior will lead to her parents’ sending her to the home. Lively, outgoing, rebellious Luella has often been the target of such efforts at verbal “correction.” So when Luella disappears not long after a blazing row with her father, what could be more logical than Effie’s belief that Dad has sent his disobedient daughter to the House of Mercy?
Furthermore, Effie suffers from a heart defect. No one knows when she will die, but since birth she’s been living, in effect, on borrowed time. The chances that she will survive to adulthood have always been poor, and her frequent “fits” of breathlessness constrict her actions. In the House of Mercy, however, hard work and harsh punishments are a way of life. The older girls enforce the rules every bit as savagely as the nuns who run the penitential laundry that is the central element in the House of Mercy’s financial success. And two of those older girls decide that Effie just might be their key to escape.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Effie Tildon loves her older sister, Luella. Sixteen to Effie’s thirteen, Luella has long taken the leading role in deciding what the two sisters do, even when it leads them in directions their parents would not approve of. Those three extra years are one reason that Luella directs Effie rather than the reverse, but another important reason is that Luella is strong and healthy and rebellious, whereas Effie has lived in the shadows since her birth—the result of a congenital heart defect that, although entirely curable in our own century, in 1900 has left everyone in the family certain that Effie may die any minute.
So when Luella leads Effie to a Roma camp on the outskirts of New York City, then disappears one day without letting her sister know where she’s headed, Effie is determined to find her, even if it means confronting her fear that their father has had Luella committed to New York’s notorious House of Mercy, a home for wayward women and girls. Effie comes up with a plan to abandon her privileged Gilded Age life and check herself into the House of Mercy. Her plan succeeds admirably—until the moment she discovers her sister is not there. That’s when Effie realizes that getting out of the House of Mercy is a lot more difficult than getting in.
In The Girls with No Names, Serena Burdick, whose previous novel Girl in the Afternoon won the International Book Award for Historical Fiction in 2017, turns a spotlight on the world of “Magdalene laundries” and the many nameless women who passed through them between their founding in the Victorian era and their abolition in the 1990s. In so doing, she paints an absorbing portrait of relationships within families and the ways they can go awry, as well as the hidden strength on which even the seemingly weakest and most damaged among us can draw in times of need.