By Rachel M. Anderson, Contributing Writer
(Twin Cities) – The idea for Sheila O’Connor’s sixth novel arrived unexpectedly. While conducting research into the circumstances of her mother’s birth and adoption, O’Connor encountered an important, and little-known piece of Minnesota history.
“Between 1911 and the 1980s, thousands of girls were incarcerated at Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. In 1936 specifically, at the time of my mother’s birth, the majority of girls—including one as young as nine—were sentenced to the facility for the offense of ‘immorality,’ and, regardless of the age they entered, they weren’t released until the age of 21. I want this history to be known,” says O’Connor.
She is doing so through her latest novel, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions, released by Rose Metal Press in Oct. 2019. Evidence of V is the story of a talented 15-year-old singer and nightclub entertainer who gets pregnant after falling in love with an older man. She is then sentenced to the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre where she is to receive “rehabilitation,” but she instead endures injustices that will change the course of her life, and the lives of her descendants, forever.
O’Connor became particularly interested in what happened at the School after learning her maternal grandmother, a pregnant 15-year-old girl, had been among the inmates at the time of O’Connor’s mother’s birth. According to information posted on the Minnesota History Center website, “the School’s purpose was to provide for the care, training, and education of girls who had been declared delinquent and committed by the courts.”
At the time O’Connor’s grandmother was committed, the recorded offense for roughly 80 percent of the girls was “immorality.” Another 10 percent were sent to the home for being “incorrigible.” Additional offenses were truancy and disorderly conduct. “These offenses reflected social expectations for girls’ behavior, not criminal activity,” points out O’Connor.
While inspired by family history, O’Connor says her latest book, like her other five, is also deeply imagined. “Despite the historical documents, the research, the cultural knowledge of 1935, I knew I could never know the truth of this incarcerated 15-year-old singer,” says O’Connor. The choice to create a book that blends fact and fiction is the author’s attempt to mirror her own experience trying to reconstruct lost family history.
O’Connor plans to travel once the book is released to raise awareness about this little-known history of girls within the criminal justice system, not just in Minnesota, but across the United States. “These schools existed in nearly every state—and girls suffered in all of them. The majority of people know nothing about this history, or the fact that girls were incarcerated for years for the offense of immorality, and later paroled as domestic workers in homes,” says O’Connor, who plans to speak at libraries and historical societies, and groups interested in history, prison reform, and justice for women and girls.
Evidence of V is a multi-genre book that O’Connor says combines fiction, nonfiction, and archival documents, among other forms. “Part of the structure and form for this book was based on the idea that form follows function and in this book there was so much that would always be unknown. I think of it like a puzzle that the reader is piecing together in the exact same way I’m piecing together the story of V,” says O’Connor.
Early reviews have been very favorable. Maureen Gibbon, author of “Paris Red,” said, “With grace and aplomb, Sheila O’Connor’s Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions shines a bright literary light on a dark page of American history.”
Lisa Pasko, author of “The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime,” said, “O’Connor uses a mix of fiction with historical case file information to illustrate the myriad ways such facilities exploited, misunderstood, silenced, and traumatized young women who were deemed insolent, damaged, and mendacious. Kin to ‘Girl, Interrupted,’ Evidence of V gives a keen sense of how we have punished (and continue to punish) girls for non-criminal violations, often in a misguided effort to ‘rescue and save.’”
To learn more about Sheila O’Connor and her work, check out her author website: SheilaOConnor.com.
About the Author
Sheila O’Connor is a multi-genre writer whose books include novels for adults and young people. Her work has been honored with the Michigan Prize for Literary Fiction, Minnesota Book Award, Inter-national Reading Award, and Midwest Booksellers Award among others, and has been included in Best Books of the Year by Booklist, VOYA, Book Page, and Chicago Public Library, as well as selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers’ title.
O’Connor received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her work across genres has been recognized with the Loft Literary Center’s McKnight Fellowship, two Bush Artist Fellowships, and several Artist Initiative grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.
Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions is O’Connor’s sixth novel. She is also the author of Tokens of Grace, Where No Gods Came, Sparrow Road, Keeping Safe the Stars, and Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth.
About Rose Metal Press
Founded in January 2006 by Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, Rose Metal Press is an independent publisher of literary works in hybrid genres. Learn more at RoseMetalPress.com.
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