Book Bag: ‘The Girls With No Names’ by Serena Burdick; ‘Welcoming Elijah’ by Lesléa Newman

Published: 1/3/2020 9:16:27 AM


By Serena Burdick

Park Row Books

The early 20th century saw the rise of the Suffragette Movement in the United States, Great Britain and a few other places. But even as an increasing number of women fought for (and eventually won) the right to vote, women’s lives were still severely circumscribed in other ways.

That theme is at the heart of “The Girls With No Names,” a new novel by Greenfield author Serena Burdick. Set in the early 20th century in New York City, “The Girls With No Names” introduces two sisters, Luella and Effie Tildon, who live with their parents in an upscale home in northern Manhattan near the House of Mercy, a forbidding Victorian structure and Catholic “reform” institution for wayward girls.

Thirteen-year-old Effie, born with a heart aliment that has made her undersized and prone to exhaustion, worships the older, bolder Luella and so joins her as they sneak out to visit a nearby camp of Roma, where they dance and sing with their new acquaintances. Both know their parents, especially their father, Emory, would forbid their visits, but Luella has decided to defy her father after catching him in a suspected liaison with another woman.

Then Luella suddenly vanishes — and neither of Effie’s parents are willing or able to tell her where she’s gone. Effie becomes convinced her father has had Luella committed to the House of Mercy to punish her, so she arranges to enter the institution herself to find her. But Luella is not there — and Effie finds herself trapped in a hellish place where girls and young women labor endlessly, washing clothes and scrubbing floors, under the iron discipline of a group of Catholic Sisters.

The story is told through three first-person narrators: Effie; her mother, Jeanne; and Mable, an older, working class teen Effie meets in the House of Mercy and who relates her own bleak story of how she’s come to be there. Mable stands in as a symbol of the harsh world of turn-of-the-century America, where many were desperately poor and no social service net cushioned a fall from bad luck or decisions.

Jeanne’s voice brings another element to the story, describing the limitations even wealthy women faced; she is dominated by her husband and has nothing to fall back on when her marriage goes cold and both her daughters vanish.

“The Girls With No Names” is perhaps strongest in its descriptions of life inside the House of Mercy, where there’s little mercy indeed and the older teens have become hardened and wary of becoming too close. Yet Effie and Mable will need to learn to trust one another if they are to survive their confinement.

Burdick, whose first novel, “Girl in the Afternoon,” looked at women artists in Impressionism-era France, based her new book in part on the horrific stories that surfaced in the 1990s of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, “reform” institutions run by Catholic orders for “fallen women” who were confined in prison-like conditions in these facilities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet in an afterword to her novel, Burdick notes that further research led her to discover the existence of similar places in 19th and early 20th-century America, which led her in turn to bring some of those forgotten voices and stories to light: “From the lives of these real and daring women, Effie, Mable and Luella were born.”

It’s an illuminating story with a quick-moving plot that also showcases how girls in early 20th-century America, whatever their socio-economic background, had to “fight bitterly for any kind of freedom,” as Kirkus Reviews puts it.

There will be a book launch for “The Girls With No Names” on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.


By Lesléa Newman

Illustrated by Susan Gal


Valley author Lesléa Newman, a onetime poet laureate of Northampton, has written over 70 books for children and older readers, including poetry and essay collections. But she’s made a particular mark with her children’s books, including the seminal “Heather Has Two Mommies,” first published in 1989.

Now Newman has returned with a new children’s title, “Welcoming Elijah: A Passover tale With a Tail,” about a young boy who is celebrating the first night of Passover with his family. Inside his home, there is light and warmth and laughter, Newman writes, while the outside is marked by darkness, wind and silence — save for a few cries from a solitary kitten.

The colorful artwork of Susan Gal matches the text, and the story describes how the boy takes part in the rituals of the Seder — the first two nights of Passover — such as washing his hands, breaking matzo bread in half and dipping parsley into a bowl of salted water.

He also fills a glass for the prophet Elijah — while outside the kitten seems to mimic the boy’s actions, from cleaning its paws, breaking a twig in two and chewing on a blade of grass. And when the boy, as tradition dictates, opens the door of the house for Elijah, he gets a sweet surprise, as two storylines merge into one.

In an afterword, Newman also includes some basic information about the history and traditions of Passover.

Steve Pfarrer can bee reached at

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