An Unknown Origin Story

Sheila O’Connor (she/her) is the author of six award-winning novels for adults and young people. Details: sheilaoconnor.com

On a January day in 2001, my mother and I sat together in the Gale Family Library at the Minnesota History Center examining the records of her birth.

We had come in search of my mother’s absent history: the circumstances of her conception and her adoption, her father’s identity, and the missing story of her infancy.

In a state with laws that have sealed thousands of adoptees’ records for 100 years, we had only been allowed to view my mother’s archived records with permission from the court.

There we were, on what felt like a sacred mother-daughter mission, tracking the truth of an origin story she had spent her life without. Together we encountered the hard facts of her beginning. Her mother, a talented 15-year-old singer, was performing in a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis during the Depression. Her father, a 35-year-old nightclub manager.

Her mother was a pregnant teenager when she was committed for six years to a state detention facility, the Minnesota Home School for Girls, in Sauk Centre. My mother was born there, and later relocated to a family home in Minneapolis, where eventually she was adopted by an aunt.

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By the time our day had ended, we did not have all the answers that we had hoped for, but we had questions. Who was this man 20 years her mother’s senior? What was their relationship? Why the six-year sentence? What crime had her mother actually committed? Why had she breastfed my mother for three months? How many other Minnesota girls were sentenced in that time? And for what crimes? Why were so many girls listed as immoral, or considered “sex delinquents,” in state reports? Were they convicted of “immorality?” And, perhaps most importantly, how had this silenced history influenced the trajectory of my mother’s life, her mother’s life, and the lives of their descendants? What trauma was transmitted through the family while these secret records remained sealed? What strength did we inherit from all that was endured?

My quest to answer those questions, and so many more, led to more than a decade’s worth of research, and the choice to make this little-known history public in my most recent book “Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions.” Moving between fragments of archival evidence, and the imagined story of that 15-year-  old girl, I attempted to reconstruct the missing history of not just one girl, but also of our family — as well as of tens of thousands of unnamed girls held in detention facilities across America for “immorality” and “incorrigibility.” These inmates had disrupted and defied the narrow social norms for girls and women of that time.


Excerpts

Where to start V’s story? V at fifteen in 1935? V sentenced until twenty-one, for what? 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.

Girl of sealed history like all those other girls. Sealed; therefore buried. State documents I now excavate for answers. An official file of facts that read like fiction. V a fiction built of fragments, as girls so often are.


How It Starts: Minneapolis, 1935

V floats like a feather far from school. Late November loose. A pain in her back tooth that can’t be fixed. Hunger acid in her belly. Her best friend Em beside her, a tether to this world. Always V and Em end up downtown. V performing on the streets, singing for the men who still have money for young girls.

“A dime a dance,” Em calls. “A nickel for a song.” Em, the stubborn banker, holds the sailor cap for coins. Money they will save for a picture show and popcorn, or a quick stop at the Lolly Jar on Sixth.

V cancans and she shimmies, sings, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” then lands hard for a laugh. One week into fifteen, V’s a red-haired Ruby Keeler, a Ziegfeld Follies hopeful sure she’ll be discovered. V has what it takes to be a star.

“You’ve got talent,” one man says, his face as clean as a fresh page, his hands as smooth as snow, his thumb under her chin like a good father. (V’s good father has been dead for five hard years.) “You shouldn’t waste it on the street. I could put you on the stage.”

The stage? V says, her heart falling to his hands.

“How much?” Em asks. Em is the accountant; Em always knows exactly what V’s worth.

“More than this,” he says, pulling a quarter from his pocket and slipping it into V’s. “More than you earn now.”


Debut at the Cascade Club

She enters the tunnel a little fox. Little Fox is what he calls her, and she wears that clever nickname like a mask. Little Fox led to the light. Little Fox half-glued together with rouge, and paint, and powder. Red lips pressed to paper like a kiss.

“Little Fox,” he whispers, “soon you’ll be my star.”

In the next room, men stripe along the bar, crowd the steamy darkness, wait for the girl to sashay into the spotlight, the girl to offer them a song. Her skin.

“You’ll still have your fur,” he says, draping the fox stole on her shoulders, brushing his hand between her legs. “Just dance,” he says. “A dance is all they want.”


Mr. C: Nightclub manager. Jewish. Age 35.

Beyond those three facts of Mr. C there is nothing I can know about this man. The seven spellings of his name inside V’s file, all oddly missing from the Minneapolis City Directory and the census.

Mr. C: Northside Jew or Southside? Romanian or German? Immigrant or not? Mr. C, the “handsome Jew.” V named as “special friend.”

And what of all those strangers who asked June if she was Jewish? Norwegian-Lutheran June with her lutefisk and lefse. Or later, asked us if we were.

Us, a pack of Irish-Catholic kids?


Minnesota History Center notes, January 10, 2001

In this hushed library of history, pale wooden tables and chairs, a cardboard box of fragile documents delivered by the clerk, I sit beside my gray-haired mother poring over papers for the story of her birth. A state-held mother- daughter puzzle made from yellowed scraps.

Baby — 1936. June’s adoption record sealed by law for 100 silent years, but steely June has pried it open with a letter to the court. A plea to know her truth before a century has passed. The court can do the math; in 2036 June will be dead.

June stares down at her slim archive, studies buried facts and data trying to find the story. Familiar names and addresses. Faint typewritten notes we struggle to decipher. Words gone with time and now are lost.

“She was dancing at fifteen?” June says with concern. “Singing? At the Cascade Club on Nicollet? And he was thirty-five?” June, the dispassionate accountant, distressed by addition and subtraction, by the numbers in her file that lead to a father.

“And this!” June says, her shocked whisper pulling me from my own pages, causing quiet patrons to turn toward June’s alarm. June’s palm pressed to her chest as if an accident has occurred. “Until twenty-one,” she says with disbelief. “V was sentenced until twenty-one, for what?”

June passes me the judgment, points to that terrible wording that commits her 9th grade mother as an inmate for six years. “For me,” June says, answering her own question with an unfamiliar mix of guilt and sadness. “Six years for being pregnant? Can you imagine at fifteen?”

“No,” I lie, because I’m already imagining a fifteen-year-old dancer, imagining the Sauk Centre institution where baby June was born.

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