Outskirts Press (2018)
Reviewed by Kimberly Luyckx for Reader Views (8/18)
“The Mind of a Deviant Woman” by Paula Paul is a wonderful work of historical fiction documenting how a society’s effort to improve itself can lead to catastrophic consequences for the world.
The story begins in 1914 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Its main character, Carrie Buck, lives a Cinderella-like existence with her adopted family, the Dobbses. When she realizes her birth mother is the town’s most unfortunate citizen – a prostitute and drunk – she is fraught with embarrassment yet determined to keep a connection with her real kin.
When Carrie is slated to join her mother in a Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, she meets Louisa Van Patten, a researcher in the field of eugenics – a movement geared to regulate the social order and prevent the genetic spreading of specific traits through sterilization. Louisa’s discourse, “The Mind of a Deviant Woman,” supports the field of eugenics through the study of unfortunate women and their offspring. As Louisa digs deeper into Carrie’s situation, she comes in contact with Ben Newman, a newspaper columnist. Ben is wary of Louisa’s research and the implications it will have on society.
This is a book that should not be judged by its cover – literally. Its dark wrapper with the mysterious figure and the use of the word deviant may make you think it is filled with promiscuity and eroticism but it is far from that. It is a well-written piece of historical fiction that documents a time in the US when women could be judged by their misfortunate situations and labeled as feebleminded and unfit to mix in society. While there is some reference to prostitution in the book, the author does not delve into any graphic details and remains focused on the topic at hand.
The book’s character development is outstanding – the complexities of Paul’s main characters are well narrated through dialog and action. Her depiction is a study in contrast. Emma Buck, a homeless woman and the true unfortunate and sufferer of the story, Carrie Buck, her daughter who was rescued from her circumstances and brought to live in a middle-class home, and Louisa Van Patten, a privileged, educated woman who has the advantage to acquire whatever she can dream. Despite their apparent differences, the author paints them all as victims of a society that has no tolerance for their desires or needs. Each, in her own way, deviates from the norm.
The author’s leading man in the story, Ben Newman, is written as Louisa’s conscience. His viewpoint as a journalist is her inner voice prodding her to look more closely at the situation. Each time he expounds, “I ask you again, who gets to decide who’s unfit and why?” we are reminded that there is another side to this story – one in defense of human rights.
It is the connection of the author’s characters, through story and actual written correspondence that add grit and reality to this tale. The letters interspersed in “The Mind of a Deviant Woman” support the early 1900 timeframe and add to the story’s validity as a piece of historical fiction. I am thankful for Paula Paul’s research and for communicating the details of sterilization laws – to learn that they were never formally revoked is shocking. Although it is always horrific to learn that there are persons who deem parts of our society unworthy, it is not unfamiliar. This book is a great reminder that we should continue to stand up for what is right in a world tainted by unjust politics and corruption.