Suddenly, your mother blurts out, “When I was twenty, before I met your dad, I got pregnant and had a baby that I gave up for adoption. You have a sister.”
That’s what happened to author Kim Heikkila. Her mother, Sharon Lee Moore Wikstrom, revealed—in those words—her startling secret that thirty-three years earlier she’d given birth to an out-of-wedlock baby girl who was immediately surrendered for adoption. Adoption was for the good of everyone, or so said society’s expectation in 1961. Author Heikkila’s reaction: “I was shocked to realize that my mother’s life had a trajectory of its own, determined in equal parts by history, circumstance, choice, and luck; it hadn’t always and only been steaming ahead toward the destination that was me.”
The revelation of this secret older sister spurred Heikkila to delve deep into her mother’s life and inspired her to write this thought-provoking and unique—yet somewhat universal—tale of unwed mothers at the mercy (or lack thereof) of society’s mores. She gets into the head and thinking of her characters, whether historical or imaginary.
Society demanded living up to a strict moral code. Heikkila examines the history of society’s treatment of unwed mothers and how the unwed mothers and families were affected. There were “good girls,” who abstained from physical relations before marriage, and “bad girls,” who gave in to their boyfriends’ reckless desires, often resulting in pregnancy. The boyfriends usually skipped out—of support, of responsibility, of judgement, of everything.
Heikkila examines the “history, circumstance, choice, and luck” and ramifications of her mother’s life as an unwed mother, including the deep shame her grandparents felt at having an unmarried pregnant daughter. Heikkila focuses on her mother’s time spent at Booth Memorial Hospital, a Salvation Army-run organization for unwed mothers who were “put away.” They were called Booth Girls, and were provided room and board, counseling, and maternity services, including physician-assisted birth services. Most Booth Girls’ babies were immediately whisked away upon birth and relinquished for adoption. Coerced? Maybe. Heikkila focuses on the present and future lives and emotional impact made upon those unwed mothers, in particular her own unwed mother.
Heikkila utilizes varying writing styles, displaying them magnificently. She speaks in different voices. There is Heikkila’s technical voice as the academic researcher, historian, orator. There is the younger, softer voice (influenced by notes and letters found) of Heikkila’s mother, the beautiful 20-year old college student Sharon. Hers is a questioning voice, often scared. There is the cold voice of a narrow society and its lack of empathy for young unwed mothers. There is Heikkila’s voice, imagining she was her mother going through an unwed pregnancy in 1961. Heikkila’s voice, as she sews together facts, stories, her own imagination, experiences, and history to gain a clearer understanding of her mother’s life outside of the author. And the connection it made on her in the present, with her own adoption story in the adoption cycle.
Heikkila presents well-researched facts about these special homes for unwed mothers spread across the US. She delves into the laws passed and enforced, and the emotional and mental state of unwed mothers, both at the time of relinquishing their babies and in the long term thereafter. Booth Girls is well-researched; it is a process of well-thought-out reporting and storytelling combined. There is always something new to learn. Heikkila’s writing, technical and creative, educates and evokes emotion, making it a highly recommended read.