The Degenerates is a slow story, that ends on a not happy note! I wanted my happy ending! I know it was not realistic to have one, but these characters all deserve one. With that said, this look set in 1928 and the way “others” are treated is interesting but does lack a little “something.” (Which is partially why I was wanting these characters to have a happy ending.) The afterwards was also interesting, putting things into context. While for at least 12-13 and up, this is not for sensitive readers.
J. Albert Mann writes from a personal place. They were born with a spinal issue that most likely would have had them placed in an institution for “feeble minded” people had they been born at another time in history. And by “feeble minded” they meant people with physical disabilities (clubbed foot), were slower (have down syndrome), immigrants (low intelligence automatically), pregnant and unwed (low moral character), were homosexual, had birth defects we can treat today. Or the people who would “birth” these people. Of course, not all is to be despaired, some people are “high level morons” instead of being “imbeciles.” (Mann mentions the wording they used to describe patients came from actual documentations.)
The world of four girls, Alice, Maxine, her sister Rose, and London play out in real time and sadness. In a regulated world (you have an hour to take care of your waste removal, in a locked room, sitting quietly, not talking), bedtime while it is still light out, walking in line, walking outdoors rain or shine or snow, doing chores, quietly being abused, picked on, and insulted. And never show emotion. There are images that are disturbing (how London is beaten, as she is fourteen, pregnant, immigrant, unmarried; how the adult women are humiliated; how Rose is tormented as she is a “Mongol” or how her and Maxine’s sister-love is used against them. Not to mention colorful, but well deserved, language).
Backtrack to the afterwards and comments: the “school” the girls are at is based on a real institution. One that was not closed until the mid-2000’s. I know it is controversial to use the word Mongol to describe Rose. However, pieces like this historical accuracy are painful to read, but I was pleased to see Mann not covering up the use of such language giving it a stronger punch and therefore, a better picture of the time. Mann describes their process of writing by doing the “what if” question (what if they were born them and put in this home) and I would like you to do the same: What if you with hearing issues was born then? Identify as homosexual? Were poor? Had a physical deformity that easily could be corrected today? Was autistic?