The Girls With No Names by Serena Burdick

The Girls with No Names takes the reader back to a time where women were still fighting to be heard. The Women’s Suffrage movement was just starting to make headway. But women were still beholden to the patriarchal standards of society. If a woman did not conform, rebelled or acted “inappropriately” she could be sent away to a sanitorium. One of these houses for wayward women was the House of Mercy on 86th St and 5th Ave. in Manhattan. Its public aim was to rescue women from vice but in actuality it was a Magdalene laundry. The women were not redeemed from their sin, but imprisoned and exploited for free labor.

House of Mercy, Inwood NY circa 1910

Effie and Luella are inseparable. Effie, born with a heart defect, has spent her life under her mother’s watchful eye and her older sister’s shadow. Luella is strong, spirited and outspoken. One day the two sisters are drawn to a field by beautiful flute music. The bonds that they form with the Romani camped here threaten their idle existence. Ignorance and bigotry cause Luella to run away. Believing that her sister was sent to the House of Mercy for her defiance, Luella hatches a plan to have her returned home. It’s a rather simple plan – get admitted to House of Mercy herself and her parents will have to come and rescue them both. The only problem is Luella isn’t at House of Mercy and no one knows that Effie is there.

Of the three perspectives that this story was told: Effie, her mother Jeanne and House of Mercy girl Mable, I enjoyed Effie’s the most. Her innocence was beguiling and I was really drawn to her character. The other women’s narrative meshed nicely with hers and fit in the missing puzzle pieces to her story.

The Girls with No Names is Serena Burdick’s second novel. Her debut, Girl in the Afternoon, won the 2017 International Book Award for Historical Fiction

My only problem with the book was the repeated use of the word gypsy. I found myself cringing every time the word appeared on the page. Because I felt compelled to hear Effie’s story and I recognized that Burdick was not disparaging the Romani people but exposing their detractors, I mentally went about scratching out the word g***y and replacing it with Romani. Although Burdick explains her use of the word in the Afterword, I am not sure if I were a member of the Romani if this explanation would slide with me. I can tell you that when I have seen racial slurs for African-Americans in literature I get highly offended.

Special thanks to NetGalley, Justine Sha at Harlequin/Park Row Publishers and Serena Burdick for advanced access to this book.

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