cover image THE MAGDALEN


Marita Conlon-McKenna, . . Forge, $14.95 (348pp) ISBN 978-0-7653-0513-8

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Holy Saints Magdalen Home for Wayward Girls and Fallen Women was a prisonlike institution in Dublin where unmarried pregnant women were sent in shame until they delivered, after which, without exception, the church took their babies away for adoption. In 1951, Esther Doyle of rural Connemara has no thoughts of such a place when she escapes her grim home life—her drunken fisherman father is drowned, and her mother can't cope with Esther's young retarded sister—for a brief romance that leaves her pregnant. In desperation, she turns to the Home, where she soon discovers that living conditions are nearly unbearable. The mostly unsympathetic and even cruel nuns oversee a sweatshop-like laundry in which women slave every day except on Sundays. The nuns refer to them as "penitents," but the women sardonically called themselves "Maggies." Through it all, the women are bolstered by their camaraderie. After Esther has her baby, reluctantly surrendering it, she leaves but refuses to return to her family, which has rejected her. The first half of the book, telling of Esther's beginnings, rings true, but it is familiar and overlong. The real tale is the story of the Magdalen Home, a cruel institution the church maintained into the mid-20th century. The straightforward writing is without flourish, but the story is powerful and moving and Esther's unhappy experience will remain with the reader. (Mar.)

FYI:This novel was first published in 1999 by Bantam Books. The same story was dramatized by Patricia Burke Brogan in a popular play, Eclipsed, first performed in Great Britain in 1992.