Four times a day I drop the baby.
It's not a real baby, but for a stunned heartbeat the audience believes it is. That's enough to get some of them on their feet, screaming, Stupid, clumsy, gimp. The words slide into my skin and stay there.
When I ask Mr. Ogilvie, the director, if just once I can catch the baby before it hits the stage, he frowns and puts his hands on my shoulders. I squirm away, but he holds on. "I love your sensitivity, Ruthie," he says, showing corn-yellow teeth. "But sadly a cripple like you can't be a hero." (p. 1)Thus the reader is thrust into the life of Rowan Collier, an unwilling actress in a "fitter family" drama reenacted four times a day at the Springfield, Massachusetts county fair. In the beginning of the novel Moger uses alternating chapters to show Rowan's life before this humiliating summer. In these flashbacks the reader meets her father, an engineering consultant for the Navy, and an advocate for the Betterment fight. He and Rowan's older sister, Julia, are dedicated to the proposition that society is best advanced having the fittest people marry and produce large families. The unfit, those who are physically, emotionally, or intellectually substandard, should be eliminated from society.
In one of these flashbacks Rowan recalls how one of her doctors wanted her to be sterilized. Rowan refuses but is shaken afterwards:
Father believed, as Dr. Pynchon did, that a weakness inherited from Mother caused me to get polio. But would he want me to be sterilized? (p. 51)Rowan's world--already dramatically changed due to polio--continues to fall apart when she is forced to do "educational work" for the New England Betterment Council at the Expo. There she develops a friendship with a fellow worker, orphaned Dorchy, whose parents worked county fairs. In these simple explanation to Rowan, Dorchy shares one of the underlying themes of the book:
Rubes are ignoramuses; carnies know everything. Rubes come to the fair with their eyes starry and their pockets full; carnies take them for what they're worth.....As Rowan hears the stories of her fellow "actors" and how they were tricked into being sterilized, Rowan starts questioning what she had believed to be true about her father. Dorchy is a major catalyst in Rowan's increasing self-awareness.
Your Unfit Family Show does the same thing. You trick rubes into paying money under false pretenses. (p. 33)
When I left Bellevue and went to the Home, all thoughts of Dr. Friedlander and nursing school were driven out of my head by the effort of surviving. But here at the Expo, the memories are starting to come back. Dorchy is bringing me back to life. (p.64)
Following a dramatic escape from the Expo, Dorchy forces Rowan to question her assumption that her mother's bloodline was weaker since she died giving birth to Rowan:
Dorchy jumps up. "Listen to yourself," she shouts, angrier than I have ever seen her. "How can you sit there and say that about your own mother? After weeks with the awful Ogilvies and the Council cows you still don't question that 'better blood' garbage? she punches her fist against her palm. "You still think people are fit or unfit because of their family bloodlines? You know as well as I do that Gar and Jimmy and Minne are as fit as you and your precious father. (p. 117)Despite Dorchy's misgivings, she considers working at the Camp for Unfortunates in Maine with Rowan.
"I'll bet you anything the camp is a con," she says stubbornly. "Miss Latigue is the carney; you and me the unfortunates are the rubes. You'll see." (p. 136)Sadly, Dorchy's predictions prove to be true. I don't want to spoil the rest of the book, but the girls' lives become painfully difficult when they realize the camp is a facade for weeding out the "unfit."
Although the ending is triumphant as Rowan begins her journey towards nursing school, it is not without great personal loss. But she has matured from a dependent "cripple" to a young woman who has purpose, resolve, and determination.
This is not an easy book to read. But as Susan Moger relates in her Notes, "Eugenics was a popular pseudo-science in the United States from the early 1900's to the late 1930s. The double aim of eugenics was (1) to keep Americans with a "strong" heredity (family backgound) having children and (2) to prevent those with a "weak heredity" from having children....The popular method of preventing reproduction among the unfit was to sterilize men and women." Necessary Lies, which I previously reviewed has a similar theme.
As you may know, American eugenics principles were adopted in other countries, most notably Germany before and during WWII. Adolf Hitler praised American eugenics in his book, Mein Kampf and thus laid groundwork for a master race.
Although the Unfit Family show and the New England Betterment Council are fiction, "Fitter Families" exhibits and contests were a popular feature at state fairs starting in 1920. This book would be an excellent supplement in high school classrooms studying WWII.