The Whipping Club is a truly haunting and literary debut. Telling the story of a clash of faiths, societies and a struggle against a system that is mindless as it is heartless.
In 1957 Dublin, Ireland, Marian McKeever is a newly minted teacher, and substituting a job at Dublin’s Zion School in the Jewish quarter for world travel. She meets, falls in love with and gets pregnant by Ben Ellis, a rising star journalist, and a Jew. Filled with a sense of shame for having done ‘the dirty deed,’ and proving herself a bad girl, because real ladies waited, she allows herself to be castigated and further shamed by her uncle, a newly ordained priest. He convinces her that not only did she commit the sin, but with a Jew at that, and interfaith marriages never work, even if he’d have her.
Further, it would be unfair to confront the young man and demand he do the right thing, for this reason and also for the simple fact that even were he Catholic, he would always resent her. Her uncle convinces her, actually demands, that she take a long ‘vacation’ with him, and so she does where she is housed in a catholic Mother Baby Home to have the child and give him up for adoption.
As her delivery date draws near, she is browbeaten and convinced by one of the crueler sisters to come up with 100 pounds, a princely sum, to insure the baby is adopted by an American family and taken to America where they won’t care he was born in sin and is of mixed race. She comes up with the price. This is no simple home for unwed mothers. Sister Paulinus and Sister Agnes never miss a chance to “purge the sins” of those who have entrusted themselves to their care. The quarters are spartan, nearly penal with all outside contact cut off and any comfort taken away. the women are made to labor, even as they grow large as their dates arrive. They are made to mow the lawn by pulling it by hand, to scrub the floors on hand and knee.
The story segues 10 or 11 years into the future and Marian is now married to Ben and they have a young daughter, Johanna. Ben is a successful journalist on a Dublin paper and the couple has settled into a comfortable middle class life. Their spirited daughter is learning about the heritage of both of her parents as she is not accepted by either. Then, one day, as mother and daughter arrive home, they see a person in the uniform of a nurse scurrying away from their mail box. At first Marian tries to discount this persons appearance at their home to Johanna, but as she reads the note left by ‘Nurse,’ a simple and slow-witted woman from the Mother Baby Home, she learns that her son Adrian was not adopted to a rich American family and in fact sill resides at a near by orphanage where he is badly treated.
Thus begins the fight to regain possession of her son, but she must fight the Catholic nuns who shun the child’s mixed blood, but alternately wish to profit from returning him to his family. Ben is lukewarm to the idea, even though he loves his son, and doesn’t want the boy to interfere with his perfect family, especially his cherished daughter.
As Marian learns more deeply the extent of the abuses the children undergo in the home, she becomes more determined to regain her son, but Adrian, happy to have a family, and especially happy to have a little sister, has a hard time adapting to the world around him.
The story is narrated, and it is probably 80% narration which works very well for this story, is gut wrenching as it details Marian’s struggle not only with the nuns and brothers at the orphanage, but with the legal and social system that seems to want to throw her son away. She also must struggle with her husband to gather her son back into their family. When Adrian graduates to an “industrial school” and is surrounded by deeper and more permanent cruelties, sexual abuse at the hands of the brothers and the other young boys, he is seemingly deserted by the laws and society the fight becomes desperate.
Deborah Henry not only succeeds in shining a light into a not so distant past in a society struggling to modernize itself, but on how one societal misstep can mark ones life forever. It also shows the evils of religious and social intolerance, and how power, left unchecked, can be used to perpetuate unspeakable cruelties on the very foundation of a nation, its young. She also goes into the shadow of the orphanages and the brutal warehouses used to house the unwanted children on the world. Marian’s seemingly futile struggle to protect and regain possession of her son makes the reader feel the pain of a mother who is helpless to protect her child. She is driven to the edge of madness, but still holds true to a course of not abandoning her son again.
The prose of The Whipping Club is gripping, and almost poetic in its emotional depth, while the research is concise and accurate, and the story haunting. The characters, even when pitted against each other, are likeable and their point of views understandable and easy to empathize with, and their foibles only make them more real to the reader. Perhaps, more than any one thing, what the story teaches is that the evils can come to life when good people remain silent in the face of society’s norms. As a debut novel, The Whipping Club holds the promise of a long and meaningful career for Deborah Henry as a serious writer. Bravo!