Desert Isle Keeper
Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
Over the past several years, I’ve developed quite a liking for dual timeline novels, and Home for Erring and Outcast Girls, centered around a home for fallen women in the early 1900s is one of the best I’ve read. It’s a bit complicated, due to the large cast of characters and the constant shifts in time, but Julie Kibler does a fantastic job bringing this period of American history to life.
Cate Sutton is a University librarian with very few connections to the people in her life. She hasn’t had much to do with her parents since just after she graduated high school, and in many ways, she feels adrift. Her new job at the University of Texas is everything she’s ever wanted, and she’s determined to forge a new life for herself, a life that feels fresh and new, free of family drama.
Shortly after arriving in Texas, Cate stumbles upon an abandoned graveyard. She’s fascinated by the bits and pieces of information she gathers from the tombstones, and vows to learn more about the women buried there. Fortunately, the university library contains boxes of information about the Berachah Home for the Redemption and Protection of Erring Girls, a charitable home established in 1904 to assist young women who had fallen on hard times. Unlike many of the other homes that existed during this time, those in charge were determined to offer rehabilitation to these women without separating unwed mothers from their children.
As Cate delves into the historical records, she uncovers the stories of two women with ties to the Berachah home. Lizzie Bates and Mattie McBride both spent time there, and Cate becomes the slightest bit obsessed with their histories. Something about the difficulties they endured reminds her of her own troubled past, and the more she reads about them, the more determined she becomes to lay her inner demons to rest once and for all.
Lizzie and Mattie developed a strong bond at the home. Lizzie and her young daughter took refuge there after being taken ill with influenza, and Mattie arrived shortly afterwards, clinging tightly to the body of her dying son. Over the ensuing quarter of a century, Lizzie and Mattie remain closer than some sisters, despite the terrible obstacles life constantly puts in their paths.
The story moves back and forth in time, giving the reader a full picture of the lives of our three main characters. We are even treated to glimpses of Cate as a teenager, something I found especially helpful as it gave me quite a bit of insight into the events that turned her into the reclusive, extremely guarded woman we meet when the story opens. As I said above, all the moving around in time might deter some readers, but once I got used to it, I settled right into the story and hated to put the book down.
As is often the case with these types of novels, I found the historical timeline to be a bit more interesting than the one that takes place in the present. Mattie and Lizzie both led difficult lives, and I loved watching them struggle to come out on top. Cate’s chapters served as a sort of vehicle to move the historical timeline forward, and while I enjoyed those parts of the book, I was always pleased to return to the historical setting.
It’s obvious the author did a lot of research for this book. She weaves factual detail seamlessly into the story, giving it a sense of authenticity that is so necessary for historical fiction, while keeping the prose from being dry or pedantic. Ms. Kibler’s vibrant descriptions of life inside the Berachah’s walls brings the characters and their circumstances to life in a dramatic and evocative manner.
There are quite a few descriptions of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout the novel, some incidences which actually occur on the page and others that are just mentioned. I didn’t find these descriptions to be overly graphic, but they were still quite troubling to read. What was perhaps more disturbing though, was the cold, unfeeling way other characters reacted when they learned what had happened. It’s a sad but true state of affairs, both today and in the past, and it brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.
If you love books about strong women who do their best to survive under less than ideal conditions, Home for Erring and Outcast Girls is most assuredly the book for you. It’s tragic in places, but hopeful too. It’s pretty much everything I wanted in a dual timeline novel, making it one of my favorite reads of 2019 so far.