The author’s note to National Book Award nominated YA novel Thirteen Doorways states that “… it is … a story about girls. Girls with ambitions, brains, desires, talents, hungers. It is a story about how the world like to punish girls for their appetites, even for their love.” Inspired by the author’s mother-in-law’s real life experience in a Chicago orphanage in the 1940s, Thirteen Doorways is the story of Francesca (Frankie), a teen who along with her older brother and younger sister has been left at the Guardian Angels orphanage. Their mother has died and their father cannot — or perhaps will not— raise them. Laura Ruby tells a story of family secrets, memory, falling in love, and wars. Wars, because this is not just the story of Frankie but of our narrator, a ghost named Pearl who has her own mystery to unravel.
Pearl is a teen who died somewhere around 1918 in the flu pandemic, during WWI. She remembers being from a fairly wealthy family that was experiencing some economic difficulty, a mother who disapproved of everything she did, a father who expected her to submit to the profitable marriage he had arranged for her, brothers who thought only of themselves. We also know that Pearl loved someone else, someone who did not meet with her family’s approval. Pearl isn’t sure why she is stuck on earth as a ghost, but she sees she is not alone. Chicago is full of ghosts, many of them reliving their deaths over and over again, but every now and then, she encounters a ghost who, like her, seems aware of their own ghost nature and the need to resolve a problem from their life before they can move on. At the public library, Pearl encounters another such ghost named Marguerite (a name which, interestingly, also means “pearl”). Through Marguerite’s past and the nature of her death, Laura Ruby educates the reader about the cultural importance of storytelling and about American racism.
As Pearl begins her journey to knowledge and truth, we also see Frankie’s journey, which runs parallel to Pearl’s. Pearl is drawn to the orphanage and pays special attention to Frankie and her friends there. We see conditions at Guardian Angels are as dreary as one would expect. There’s not enough food, a mix of cruel and kind nuns, and fellow orphans whose family circumstances may differ but who all suffer the same lot. And yet, this is Frankie’s world; she has close friends there and even a budding love interest. The orphanage has taken the place of a traditional family, and as much as she and the others dream of life away from the place, Frankie is also somewhat afraid. The world outside the orphanage is an unknown and the people there cannot know what it is like to be raised in an orphanage, to have your own parents send you away. Frankie does not know how to be independent, and independence is not something young women are encouraged to pursue. As war takes more and more of the young men of the orphanage away, including Frankie’s brother Vito, Frankie worries about her love interest Sam and whether the dreams they have of a life together can ever come true.
Pearl is always drawn back to Frankie, perhaps because she sees that Frankie’s life has parallels to her own. Both love young men whom they are not supposed to love, both are held back by repressive guardians, both wish for a freedom that is not afforded to young women in their world. As she follows Frankie around, and as Frankie learns more about the truth of her family history, Pearl also begins to remember more of her own past and what really happened to her.
Doorways are an important symbol in this novel. Behind doors lie the unknown — for good or for bad. A door is a barrier, and there are barriers for women throughout the novel — gender, race, economic status, societal norms, family expectations. To push open a door, be it a literal or figurative door, is an act of courage. At some point, each character has to decide if they are going to take the risk of opening a door, understanding that challenging the known order has not worked to their advantage in the past. The pearl is another important symbol. Pearl, Marguerite and Frankie are all irritants to those around them, especially their parents/guardians. As we know, pearls are produced through the irritation of a small grain of sand within an oyster, and pearls, which take a long time to develop, are highly prized t. The truths that the characters discover are hard and sad. Ruby has done a lot of research to bring real historical events and social phenomena into her story, and the way she brings all of this together through the stories of Frankie and Pearl is exquisitely done.