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Review: The Myth of Surrender, by Kelly O’Connor McNees
Pegasus, 2022. 313 pp. $26

Chicago, 1960. Doreen, eighteen, slips out of the house one night and goes to the movies in what her mother would call the wrong part of town. There, she meets what Mother would call the wrong sort of young man, a Black college-bound student; eventually, Doreen sleeps with him. The first time, he uses a condom, but not subsequently.

Meanwhile, Margie, sixteen, works part-time at a jewelry store, and one day, her boss inveigles her to a basement. She has no idea what he’s after, or even how intercourse works, but she does know she doesn’t want it, only she’s not strong enough to repel him.

After these two young women discover they’re pregnant, they cross paths at a maternity home run by the Catholic Church. There, in return for agreeing to give up their children for adoption, they’ll receive free room and board, medical care, and absolute discretion.

Jacob Riis’s photo of Sister Irene and children at New York Foundling orphanage, 1888, about seventy years before this novel takes place (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The prospect of returning to their previous lives as though the shame and burden never happened relieves Doreen and Margie, at least at first. However, if they decide, after all, to keep their children, they’ll have to repay the money spent on their care. As with the other young women there, neither Margie nor Doreen could afford that.

Moreover, the nun running the home, Sister Simon, tells them the same message every day, seemingly intended to make sure nobody becomes attached to her newborn. Each girl there is morally depraved, Sister Simon says, unfit to mother that child conceived in sin, whereas the prospective adoptive parents deserve their good fortune and will raise the child better than the sinful girl ever could. Young, frightened, without family support, and impressionable, the expecting young mothers tell themselves all this must be true, and they wouldn’t have things any other way.

Margie and Doreen strike up an unlikely friendship, the younger girl a goody-goody afraid of her own shadow, the elder having practiced a different sort of life.

Whether she was eager or trying not to be, Doreen thought, the result was the same: the trying. Margie tried so hard at everything. Her whole life seemed calculated for the sake of the judges she imagined sat on a dais she dragged with her everywhere she went. But the score never came in. The reward for all that trying was simply getting to do it all over again the next day.

But we’re not talking about doormats here. McNees has several twists in store, all credible, which kick the narrative into higher gear. For the two protagonists, their stay at the maternity home shows them, in ways they can’t ignore, how powerless they are. (A telling example is the “expert” medical care they receive, from a sadistic brute of a doctor who begrudges them every second of his time and who leaves no doubt of his contempt for them.) How Doreen and Margie handle their powerlessness enlarges the narrative beyond a poignant moral tale into a struggle for freedom.

Also trailing them into their futures are the secrets both guard with their lives, including, but not limited to, the identity of their babies’ fathers — and recall that Doreen’s lover is Black, therefore unacceptable to her family. But the greatest lie that Sister Simon tells them concerns the children they’re supposed to forget and whom they’re forbidden by law to trace. The assurance that accompanies such falsehoods doesn’t go entirely unquestioned, however. One young woman actually dares ask, “How would you know?” a rare instance of backtalk, for which she’s immediately punished.

Consequently, from a shameful problem as old as our alleged civilization, The Myth of Surrender spins a potent story that grabs you from several directions. Heightening the effect, McNees shows her terrific eye for mother-daughter relationships and family life in general. If either young woman ever thought passing through the maternity home would spell the end of their problems, they are sorely mistaken.

I do think Sister Simon makes an over-the-top villain, just as Sister Joan, another nun, plays good cop to the other’s bad one. I’d have liked a subtler, more artful approach there. I also think McNees could have omitted the brief sections titled “We” between those chapters narrated by her protagonists. They’re essays, and though I have no quarrel with what’s in them, they’re not part of the story, which speaks loudly enough.

But these are quibbles. The Myth of Surrender is a terrific novel, based on an astounding fact the author cites in an afterword: Between 1945 and 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, 1.5 million pregnant girls and women gave up their children for adoption at maternity homes run by various charities. This may be an old story, but McNees’s interpretation of it is as timely as ever.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.