To write about mid-twentieth century adoption practices in the United States is to position oneself at the heart of dozens of competing narratives. As explored in other texts such as Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade, to tell the story of birth, surrender and adoption is also to tell the story of sex education (and its lack), sexual expression (permitted and forbidden), infertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, birth, class, race, geography, and more.
In Booth Girls: Pregnancy, Adoption, and the Secrets We Kept, historian Kim Heikkila tackles each of these pressing concerns while adding even more complexity to the story: the woman at the heart of her book is her mother, who in 1961 delivered a daughter at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, and surrendered her for adoption. Heikkila (a subsequent child) tells her mother’s story in a text that is part biography, part memoir, part historical inquiry, and part a creative project.
There are five strands to the expansive story Heikkila tells: her mother’s story as told by her mother herself in letters and essays; Heikkila’s meticulous research into the larger historical context of the moment; conversations between Heikkila and other “Booth Girls,” women like her mother who surrendered children at Booth Memorial; fictional snippets in which Heikkila imagines her mother’s thoughts, feelings, or actions; and Heikkila’s own story of infertility and pregnancy loss that led her to adopt a child from Vietnam. While this multiplicity of narrative threads might have proved overwhelming in less skilled hands, Heikkila weaves them into an impressive whole. Her skills as a historian are eminently on display, but so is her ability to write about searingly personal details as someone in the thick of discovering her own relationship to motherhood. Perhaps the weakest of Heikkila’s approaches to the story she tells are the short paragraphs in which she imaginatively places herself in her mother’s shoes. They add little to the overall experience of the book, although a reader’s reaction to them may well depend on their own experiences of potential, incipient, actual, or imagined parenthood.
Heikkila’s mother, Shannon Lee Moore, has a story that will be, in many respects, familiar to those who have read Fessler. Moore came from a family in which sex was rarely and only obliquely discussed. In 1960, while in college, Moore became pregnant after sleeping with her boyfriend. After briefly fleeing to San Francisco in the hopes of hiding her situation, she spent the remainder of her pregnancy at her family’s rural home. Moore remembered that period as one of great isolation, spent in a single room away from her community’s gaze. Heikkila, however, discovers that her mother may have worked during this period, and deftly unpacks the frailty of memory and the psychological power of feelings at play in trying to understand the truth of her mother’s experience. Whatever the conditions of Moore’s literal or figurative confinement, Moore entered the Salvation Army’s Booth Memorial Hospital at the end of December 1960 and delivered her daughter there on January 16. She was one of many young women to give birth at the hospital in 1961, and Haikkila explores the community those women created, as well as their relationship to the nurses, doctors, and social workers who governed their care.
Where Heikkila really shines is in contextualizing her mother’s experience. Heikkila tells a social and cultural history of single motherhood that draws on a wealth of scholarship, not only about sex education, birth, adoption, and the afterlife of each in the lives of mothers and children, but about class, geography, and race. Whiteness is a vivid presence in this text. Heikkila is frank about the fact that whiteness provided Moore with protection from certain stereotypes about her sexual history and a mediation of the shame doled out to her by family and friends. It also allowed her access to health care that might otherwise have been lacking; and protection in making choices, however limited, about the future of her child.
Booth Girls begins where other books might end – with the author learning about her half-sibling and the beginnings of a relationship between her mother and older sister. The complex consequences of adoption for birth parents and the children they surrendered are an important part of this book, not only in terms of Heikkila’s mother and sister, but in terms of the women who sat for interviews with Heikkila, and her own feelings about adopting a son. Heikkila articulates that it felt dishonest to omit her own relationship to adoption from the text, and surely it would have doubled the length of this book to fully plumb the depths of that experience. Still, a reader can certainly be forgiven for wanting Heikkila to wrestle more fully with the impact of international adoption on individuals, families, and communities in the US and overseas.
Booth Girls is a stirring and commanding piece of scholarship, a thoughtful memoir, and a compelling meditation upon memory. Historians of medicine, reproduction, women, gender, and the twentieth-century US will find it an indispensable text, while those with a personal connection to the history and lived experience of adoption will find much here of lasting value.
- Here, I follow the language choices used by Heikkila in the book. There is a great deal of debate about the correct way to name the experiences, practices, and identities of those involved in the birth and adoption process, which Heikkila discusses and defines in a foreword to the text. ↑