“V the family secret I discovered at sixteen.
“My mother’s missing mother never mentioned to me once.
“Shhh. The sound of V is silence.”
Silence no more. To the blend of fact and fiction we expect from historical fiction, Sheila O’Connor’s experimental novel “Evidence of V” adds poetry and memoir, and arrives at a cohesive and moving portrait of the grandmother she never knew. The novel’s unusual approach to storytelling — “Fragments, Facts and Fictions” — comes to seem perfectly suited to its topic.
The outlines of the lost story emerged from a thin file of documents O’Connor and her mother found at the Minnesota History Center in 2001. In the mid-1930s, at the age of 15, a girl identified by various names beginning with “V” began entertaining at the Cascade Club in Minneapolis. After she became pregnant by a man the files describe as “Nightclub manager. Jewish. Age 35,” V was picked up for truancy, then incarcerated at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, there to stay until she reached the age of 21.
When she gave birth she was allowed to nurse for three months, after which her baby was returned to her family to be raised and eventually adopted by her older sister. Not long after she was finally “paroled” six years later, she leapt to her death.
Around that scaffolding, O’Connor builds a collage of imaginary vignettes and fascinating/horrifying historical documents that brings to life a lively, talented girl and her bitter fate. She imagines “a red-haired Ruby Keeler, a Ziegfeld Follies hopeful sure she’ll be discovered.”
In brief chapters, poems and prose poems with titles like “The Men of Minneapolis,” “Jefferson Junior High December 1935,” “The Stepfather” and “How to Become a Sex Delinquent” — (“This is difficult to accomplish on your own. An ordinary girl may need some help. … Most frequently a sex delinquent girl will need a boy, an older neighbor who can rape her when she’s twelve.”) — she traces V’s journey to Sauk Centre.
This part of the book is a historical echo of Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl Interrupted,” using documents and storytelling to explore the rigors visited upon the institutionalized girls, locked up for every reason from “feeblemindedness” to none at all, disciplined with “extra or unpleasant work assignments, corporeal punishment, cold tubbings, segregation, isolation, and delayed parole.”
As the author puts it in an afterword, “Unfortunately the issues girls confront in the juvenile justice system remain distressingly relevant today.” In addition to the adult audience it deserves, I hope this book gets passed around by girls in and out of such places, its literary magic restoring to them their history.
Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead,” published this fall by Counterpoint, and the host of the Weekly Reader podcast. She is on the board of the NBCC.
Evidence of V
By: Sheila O'Connor.
Publisher: Rose Metal Press, 270 pages, $16.95.
Events: 7 p.m. Oct. 26, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.; 2 p.m. Nov. 3, Next Chapter, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul; 6:30 p.m. Nov. 12, Hennepin County Library, 5280 Grandview Square, Edina.