Title: The Girls with No Names
Author: Serena Burdick
Published: January 20th 2020
Publisher: HQ Fiction – US
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 stars
The Girls with No Names pulls readers into the gilded age of New York City in the 1910s, when suffragettes marched in the street, unions fought for better work conditions – and girls were confined to the House of Mercy for daring to break the rules.
Not far from Luella and Effie Tildon’s large family mansion in Inwood looms the House of Mercy, a work house for wayward girls. The sisters grow up under its shadow with the understanding that even as wealthy young women, their freedoms come with limits. But when the sisters accidentally discover a shocking secret about their father, Luella, the brazen older sister, becomes emboldened to do as she pleases.
But her rebellion comes with consequences, and one morning Luella is mysteriously gone. Effie suspects her father has made good on his threat to send Luella to the House of Mercy and hatches a plan to get herself committed to save her sister. But she made a miscalculation, and with no one to believe her story, Effie’s escape from the House of Mercy seems impossible – unless she can trust an enigmatic girl named Mable. As their fates entwine, Mable and Effie must rely on each other and their tenuous friendship to survive.
Home for Unwanted Girls meets The Dollhouse in this atmospheric, heartwarming story that explores not only the historical House of Mercy, but the lives – and secrets – of the girls who stayed there.
My introduction to the writing of Serena Burdick came courtesy of 2020 HQ Fiction publication, The Girls with No Names. Set in a time of upheaval in the US, Serena Burdick’s new novel exposes the tragic world of female work houses. This heartbreaking hidden history opens our eyes to a most regrettable chapter in early twentieth century New York.
‘In 1891, the House of Mercy, a notorious asylum for “destitute and fallen women,” stood on the highest point of Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park, a massive and foreboding building stretching the length of the plateau. The women it imprisoned were not privy to the view from the barred windows of their dormitory, or from the steaming laundry room, and certainly not from the basement, where they were isolated for the smallest infraction.’
This is just a bitter taste of the true story that inspired Serena Burdick to pen her moving novel, The Girls with No Names. This is the heartbreaking and compelling story of two sisters, Luella and Effie Tildon, who reside under the shadow of the House of Mercy, a women’s workhouse. A shocking secret that strikes at the very heart of the Tildon family unit sends the two sisters in confusion and misunderstanding. For Luella, the rebellious older sister, the revelation of this secret sends her in a spin and she explores a new sense of freedom. However, Luella’s carefree behaviour ultimately sets her on a path to confinement. Effie knows that her father has ensured that Luella must pay the price for her defiance. Effie sets about breaking her sister free from the House of Mercy, where she believes Luella is being kept against her will. But Effie’s plan to rescue her sister does not bode well and she becomes a prisoner in this oppressive organisation. With only the trust of another girl imprisoned in the home to help her, Effie knows this is a fight she must win.
I haven’t come across the writing of Serena Burdick, the author of The Girls with No Names prior to reading this novel, but I see Burdick has published a novel in 2016 titled, Girl in the Afternoon. I will definitely be investigating this one in the near future, as I connected with Burdick’s work. I am always indebted to the work of historical fiction novelists, who toil endlessly through a mountain of research to produce fascinating narratives, inspired by real life events. The Girls with No Names is one such example of a strong historical fiction title, informed by a breadth of research.
Burdick manages to balance a fairly weighty and alarming episode in history, with an engaging narrative. The Girls with No Names never felt heavily laden in facts. Instead, I found the narrative to be carefully plotted, evenly paced and surprising. The structure employed by Burdick, which is a three viewpoint narrative, ensures that the reader receives an even outline of the events of the story. Although their stories were touched with sadness and unjust actions, I appreciated getting to know the three female leads of this tale, along with the supporting cast. Burdick does her characters justice, bringing to light this emotional sojourn with sensitivity.
The period in which this novel is set (1910) is an era I tend not to encounter in books. The Girls with No Names brings to light an era that was beginning to witness the first whisperings of the fight for women’s freedom thanks to the suffragettes. However, for many women classed as ‘wayward’ the oppression continued in horrific circumstances. This is where Burdick shines, the author’s extensive research and passion for her subject matter exposes a time of great injustice. Burdick’s resulting narration strikes at the heart of the female condition, allowing us to see that there was no such thing as ‘mercy’ in workhouses such as the House of Mercy, which looms large in this novel.
Although The Girls with No Names is definitely a bleak and unfortunate tale of the abysmal treatment of women, just over a century ago, there are still some endearing messages of hope, friendship, family bonds, sibling relationships, strength and resilience to be taken from this tale.
Fans of well informed historical fiction novels and female focused histories will find The Girls with No Names a compelling book choice.
The Girl with No Names by Serena Burdick was published on 20th January 2020 by HQ Fiction – US. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Girls with No Names, Serena Burdick, visit here.
*I wish to thank Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.