Ninth Letter is honored to present for our readers the following excerpts from Sheila O’Connor’s Evidence of V: a Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions (Rose Metal Press, 2019). While Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian tale told in the future, O’Connor’s book is set in an actual dystopian past. A past that’s all the more chilling for being real and yet largely hidden from historical memory.
—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large
A genre-bending, hybrid work, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions, combines flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, as well as excerpted historical documents to tell the story of V, a fifteen-year-old girl incarcerated for six years for the crime of “immorality.” Based on my maternal grandmother’s juvenile incarceration in 1935, and my mother’s birth during V’s incarceration, V is my effort to make sense of inherited trauma.
Told through a fragmented meta-narrative that mirrors my quest to reconstruct V’s missing story by way of imagination and fact, the book follows V from her early work as an underage dancer in Depression-era Minneapolis, through her incarceration and eventual escape from parole.
This is a story many associate with the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, but abuse of institutionalized girls was accepted practice throughout America. Subjected to long hours of labor and harsh punishments, including solitary confinement, incarcerated girls as young as eight were under state control until the age of twenty-one. Although V’s story and the stories of many thousands of incarcerated girls have been lost to history, the truth of their suffering remains pressingly relevant today.
The following excerpt contains pieces taken from the book that include both V’s time in Minneapolis as a dancer and the early days of her commitment to Minnesota Home School for Girls Sauk Centre juvenile detention facility.
Evidence of V:
A Book of Pseudonyms and Lies
[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 in V’s. More than you earn now.
Inmate’s Name: V_______________
[Does entertainer equal
none of the above?
And was that V in my lost brother
with his heroin and blues?
Brother singing on the stage in Amsterdam, Munich, Paris.
Brother an entertainer at fifteen
performing on the streets of San Francisco.
Brother dead on Christmas Day.
A startling young talent
no one could account for
because no one in the family could account.]
Inside the empty Cascade Club, tiny V contemplates Mr. C’s sweet proposition: Seven dollars every week, plus tips. Can’t your family use the money? Aren’t times tough for a kid?
Yes, V nods, trying to mask the thrill trapped in her throat. His offer so much better than the solo prize she won at Powderhorn last year. Nine thousand people at the park to hear her sing. V’s name printed in the paper. Page 23. Her own single column clipping pressed into her scrapbook full of famous stars. Picture shows or Broadway, V dreams of either one.
Except V’s not in a dream right now, she’s real. Mr. C is real. This squat brick bar on Nicollet is real. Watery block windows. No bright lights marquee, but floor show posters plastered on the door. DANCING. DRINKS. HOT NIGHTS AND HAPPY GIRLS. .75 FOR FUN. No stage, he lied about the stage. The smell of last night’s party wafting from the walls. Beer and whiskey. Cigarettes. Cigars. Rickety round tables with chairs stacked on the tops. A nightclub like those nightclubs where so many stars began. V knows that from the newspaper, the rags-to-riches stories of so many girls like her. Houston. Chicago. Kansas City. V’s story will begin in Minneapolis.
And what about your folks? he asks, pouring V a Coca-Cola to close the deal. I can’t risk any trouble, even for a little thing like you. They going to want their pretty daughter working here?
Sure, V lies, the heat of that last pretty burning her young skin. And anyway, I mostly sleep at Em’s.
Spider bites and pinups in Em’s attic, no radiator heat, but V would rather freeze than go home to that man her mother married last July. Her mother’s good Norwegian-Lutheran God, gone now from their house.You like licorice ropes and picture shows? he asks. Dark-eyed Mr. C, the handsome heartbreaker on every starlet’s arm. Silk stockings? Streetcar fare? You’ll never have to walk downtown again.
You bet, V says, but she would sing without the licorice. The streetcar fare. Her body like a radio, a steady thrum of music yearning to be heard. All the dances that she’s learned without a lesson longing to be seen.
V discovered at fifteen.
And so she takes the job.
Emptied out and quiet, the Cascade is a land of make-believe for V and Em. (Homely Em is only welcome after close.) Mr. C in his back office balancing the books, calling out for songs from Little Fox. V proud to be his private singer, dancer. Em polishing the bar top, pretending that she works at the Cascade, too.
Pick your poison, Em tells V.
For V, a kiddie cocktail, ginger ale, a floating slip of orange, a maraschino cherry on a stick. For Em, a low-ball glass of whiskey mixed with Coca-Cola.
Just try, Em pleads, pressing the glass of fizzy booze to V’s closed lips.
No, V says. Em’s whiskey is the memory of V jolted out of sleep. The smell of her mother’s second husband reeking at V’s bedside. The man who won’t have a little whore inside his house.
V turns away from Em, wipes the burn of whiskey from her lips, steals another glance at Mr. C in the side office. Mr. C too clean for beer or whiskey. Mr. C with his handsome, solid face, a contour line she’d like to trace with her fox tongue, his jaw, his lips, the part between his front teeth when he laughs. His face. His hands. His hands as smooth as—
V dreams the steamy summer dream that keeps her warm this winter:
V and Mr. C at Cedar Lake alone. V’s costume on the shore, her hand inside of his. The cool surprise of Cedar Lake holding their great heat. V as clean as Mr. C in that dark water. A secret midnight swim the way she always did with Em, except—
Later in the sand her wet body under his. His Little Fox beneath him the way Em used to want to make believe with V.
A flock of wild birds beats in V’s chest.
Wait here, V says to Em, wishing Em wouldn’t be her constant shadow anymore.
At the door to his small office, V breathes in his sweet cigar and Aqua Velva, startles at the gun across his lap. You a gangster like some say? You tied up with Kid Cann?
You ever hear about the cat? he winks. Curiosity? Go play with your sidekick while I work.
You want some help counting that cash? V volunteers. V can start with counting, work forward toward the beach. I’m good for more than songs.
I bet you are, he says, sweeping the coins into a bag. Ask me when you’re older. My answer might be yes.
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 Record and the census.
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 lefsa.
Or later, asked us if we were.
Us, a pack of Irish-Catholic kids?]
GENEROSITY: JANUARY 1936
V with the kindness of fifteen, concocts a pot of onion soup for Mr. C, adds a pinch of pepper while Em stirs. V and Em are young chefs skipping school. (Em’s waitress mother gone all day at work.)
When the time comes to deliver, V insists she’ll take the soup to Mr. C alone. Two girls will be too much for a man sick with pneumonia. Em fights, but V holds firm. She packs the steaming pot into a box, steals a bowl and spoon from Em, leaves Em at the sink with a stack of dirty dishes to be washed.
At the paper stand on Lyndale, V buys a Tribune for Mr. C.
In her father’s final days, he liked V to sit beside his bed to read the Book of Psalms.
V with the kindness of fifteen, standing in the hallway of the Belvedere Hotel. Her red hair in snowy ringlets, a goofy young girl grin.
Soup, she says, I heard that you were sick.
Mr. C in those strange cotton-pant pajamas, a matching shirt. Nearly naked without his strict black suit and tie.
Does your teacher know you’re here? He coughs.
Mr. C, exactly like her mother, always telling V to stay in school.
I brought the Tribune, she says nodding toward the paper, looking past his striped pajamas to his private hotel life lit by one dim bulb. I could read you the paper while you rest. Serve you soup in bed.
You should go, he says, glancing down the vacant hallway, first right, then left, before he lets V step inside.
Exactly as she’d dreamed when she left Em angry in that kitchen. Exactly as she’d dreamed walking three long miles to the Belvedere Hotel.
[The kindness of fifteen. The hangman thirty-five.]
[I know what you think.]
Afterward V closes like a zipper, her dream complete; Mr. C a snake she captured in the woods. The onion soup cold now on the table. V’s wrinkled blouse lost in his white sheets. The crumpled Tribune thrown open on the floor.
V weaves her slender fingers between his, rests her cheek against his fevered chest, draws a threaded needle between her heart and his.
You’re mine, she sighs, flexing up on one bare elbow to study his dark face.
To stare long into love.
Sweetheart, Mr. C says with a wheeze. You’re young enough to be my kid.
I know, V says, wishing that she was.
[TRUE OR FALSE]
1. T F The author is deliberately deceptive.
2. T F The author does not know the truth and so she lies.
3. T F The author trusts fiction over fact.
4. T F The author wants the truth, but knows she’ll never have it.
5. T F There is a truth the author knows, but she can’t tell.
6. T F The author was taught early not to tell.
[And why dream them into being?
My mother’s lost beginning?
Hotel or not? Mr. C or someone else?
To understand that cell.]
“…The term delinquent child shall mean a child who violates any law of this state…
or who is guilty of lewd or immoral conduct involving another person.”
~Mason’s Minnesota Statute 1927
V, trying to climb back from delinquent, attends school like a good girl, completes her daily homework, goes to bed in that apartment with her mother’s sewing scissors in her hand. He touches her again she’ll take his heart.
Sunday mornings feigning purity, she sings beside her mother at Mindekirken Church. In that stony, steepled house of stiff wood pews and stained-glass windows, V stumbles through the hymns in strange Norwegian. Prays the little she remembers: La ditt navn holdes heelig. La ditt rike komme.
Kill this cell, she adds silently, in case God really hears.
Then, Please God let him be there Monday, because sometimes now he is. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; V is never sure. But there is Mr. C as a surprise: Waiting in his black Ford after school, parked on Emerson or Fremont, or across the street from Jefferson to be sure V’s staying true. He doesn’t want some ninth-grade punk walking his girl home. Mr. C forcing V to take his money because he knows she needs it now. Reminding V to keep his secrets. Their secrets. Each time warning V to steer clear of the law.
When things quiet with the cops, he’ll be waiting at the Belvedere for V. A month or two without more trouble, and V will star again as Little Fox.
Saturdays, V spends his money on a matinee and more. First, Chesterfields for Em. For V, a cape trimmed with silver fox fur. Fake, but Em swears V wears it well. Chocolate balls and taffy, peppermints and popcorns, treats that they can feast on through the show. V and Em just like the old days, curled up in the velvety day-darkness of the Uptown, Em practicing her smoke rings while V dreams of her future as a dancer in New York. The blinding costume of gold coins she’ll get to wear. V another girl about to make it big for Mr. Ziegfeld.
Don’t worry, V, Em whispers in the darkness. You can marry Mr. C and be a mother.
Clever Em who somehow sees the truth that V can’t say. Sees that secret cell.
No, V says. That isn’t what I want.
Afterwards V vomits in the street. Chocolate balls and popcorn bits splattered on V’s boots.
AND HER THERE SAFELY KEEP
Not bad for the pen, the sheriff jokes.
Through the window of the backseat, V takes in the Minnesota Home School for Girls, Sauk Centre. A school that’s not a school; a home that’s not her home. Farmland and flat sky as far as V can see. The same stink of so much country she’s had to breathe these depressing hours in the car. Cows or pigs or corn, she doesn’t recognize the stench. She’s never spent a day out on a farm, and now she will be held here in these fields trapped in silence.
Shady clusters of dark trees. An immaculate green lawn. Leafy lilac shrubs. A scattering of clapboard houses standing lonely on the land. No house next to another. No one near to hear V scream. No alleys. No streetcar V can hop to Minneapolis when she’s ready to be done. No Olson’s Grocer on the corner. No Sears. No shops of any kind. No kids chasing down the street. No streets. No Cascade Club. No Mr. C. No Em. No mother. No older, doting sisters to spring V from this mess. A world so far from love and freedom V could crack.
No one who V loves will find her here.
Please don’t leave me here, V begs, choking back a sob. Her hand touching his right shoulder in case a girl’s small hand will help. I can’t stay at this school, I just can’t.
You’ll straighten out, the sheriff says, slowing to a stop. It’s a good place for a girl like you to land.
Made to wait in the front parlor, V hears the sheriff’s engine disappear into the distance, feels the loss of that kind stranger tear at her young heart. The last hope she had to run for home, and now he’s gone. Wait, she calls, rushing toward the doorway—
You take your seat now, missy. We follow rules here.
First, there are the necessary formalities of commitment to complete. Questions every girl must answer: name, address, employer, occupation, school, grade, special talents (dancing/singing), venereal conditions, intimate relations, with whom, and when, and where, conception date and place, father’s name—
Here V is forced again to tell the tale of that relation: How she met a man named Sammy K at the Cascade Club. How she’d heard that he was sick. How she’d gone to see him at the Curtis with a bowl of onion soup she hoped might help. February. She can’t recall a date, but she’s certain there was snow. Yes, once. It wasn’t more than once. The hotel room at the Curtis? Second or third floor, V isn’t sure. In town on a visit from St. Louis? Is V certain he’s not local?
I’m sure, V lies again.
But a Jew, you’re sure of that?
I am, V says, doling out the one truth Mr. C wanted V to tell.
Don’t start with the waterworks. The time for tears has passed.
How shall we leave V on that first day?
Settled into the school’s Higbee Hospital? A receiving ward of fourteen rooms, a sun porch, where V will live in isolation, quarantined for two long weeks, alone.
Or shall we leave her giving up her own clothes for the single dress and underwear the Home School first provides?
Or on the table with her bare feet in the stirrups? A strange man’s hurried fingers tunneling through V. A delinquent girl about to be reformed.
QUARANTINE: RECEPTION WING
There is nothing V can give the other girls. No disease, no contraband. She only owns a regulation comb and toothbrush now. Still, she’s contained in isolation like a germ. Subjected to their interviews and tests: Mantoux, Wassermann, vaginal smear, psychological, educational, achievement. A thorough investigation to ensure V is classified correctly.
Bed, table, dresser, chair. This is all V has for comfort now. A land of green and girls outside her window. The distant hum of inmates just like V. Footsteps in the hallway. The sealed jar of Higbee Hospital closed tight around V’s brain.
At night, a lightning storm foreshadows Hell. V could die alone in these moist sheets. Die of want and terror. Die before this baby’s even born.
And where is Em right now? Her hand in Lu’s, two girls running from police like it’s a lark. Mr. C closing up the Cascade Club, wiping a damp towel across the bar, or fingering V’s button in the pocket of his pants. Mr. C dreaming of his V, his Little Fox, his Venus. His private, perfect dancer.
Another girl is dancing for him now.
In the morning, Higbee Hospital glares bright and disinfectant clean, and V can hear her mother’s voice whisper from the walls.
V blinks out of isolation, startled by a sky suddenly silver; the solitary weeks a wool hood over her head. She has a face, a footprint, which means she must be real. She can still recite the streets of Minneapolis: Aldrich Avenue through Zenith. The states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, etc. The Raven. Once upon a midnight dreary. Her times tables through twelve. One hundred twenty-seven songs from start to finish. (A secret tally on the white page in her brain).
Two thousand thirty-six: the days that she has left to play their prisoner.
Two thousand thirty-six.
In four more weeks, classified, case-studied, assigned the proper cottage,
V will learn exactly who she is.
Freed from quarantine, the fundamentals of V’s training—homemaking and domestic service—must begin at once. Thus, V is on her knees waxing the glassy halls of Higbee Hospital; a daily exercise the school doctor recommends for pregnant girls.
Evenings, V works the kitchen sink with loud Louise and Dixie from St. Paul, sweet Patrice from Minneapolis—Washburn High. Younger girls: Tough Toots who just turned twelve. Little Hazel only nine. Little Hazel with her frizzy pearl-white curls and pink-rimmed eyes, the tiny elfin girl who begs to sort the flatware. The best job in the kitchen and the big girls let her have it. Little Hazel who let her uncle touch her where he shouldn’t. She knows better now, but can’t go home. Her uncle plows her family’s fields; Hazel doesn’t.
You can be our Shirley Temple, V offers, to be kind. Our own Baby Berlesk. Once V wished to be that cute. That petulant and pouty. A Glad-Rags-to-Riches girl like charming Shirley.
If Shirley Temple let her uncle dirty her, Dixie says, disgusted. But a rich girl in the pictures wouldn’t do that.
“The proportion committed until 21 years old was exceptionally large for males committed for delinquency and females committed for sex offenses immorality and sex delinquency—”
—Juvenile Delinquents in Public Institutions, 1933
THE WEIGHT OF FAIRVIEW COLONY
The weight of girls. The weight of babies, secrets, shame. Amniotic fluid. The weight of want. The weight of rage. The weight of fieldwork and laundry. The weight of shovels, hoes, and spades. The weight of home sick, love sick, life sick, rising in V’s gut. The weight of safe. The weight of fog through which the feeble-minded wander. Lost? Insane? No one ever says.
The dim girls bleed and bleed. The pregnant girls swell with salt and milk.
At night the fat girls lumber up the stairs, bears, bearing the weight of what they’ve done, and all they must do next.
[Reform. To recreate, to change, to improve things for the better, to eradicate all defects, to break, to crack, to put together from the pieces, to reshape, remold, to modify, get straight, to convert, amend, revamp, to revise, restore, repair, to make something out of nothing, to fracture, to improve, to renovate, rework, to damage or destroy, to correct, resolve, to invent, to ameliorate, refine, to upgrade, to restructure, rearrange, to remedy, redeem. Reform V. Reform her pieces into story. To re-form what I have left.]
Sheila O’Connor is the author of six award-winning novels for adults and young people, including, most recently, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions (Rose Metal Press, 2019). Her book Where No Gods Came won of the Minnesota Book Award and the Michigan Prize for Literary Fiction, and Sparrow Road received the International Reading Award. O’Connor received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review. Visit her website: www.sheilaoconnor.com.