Skip to main content

Of Better Blood

Review

Of Better Blood

Let’s get one thing straight: OF BETTER BLOOD has guts --- more guts than I’d ever expect from a debut novel. But not only does Susan Monger’s novel delve into the festering eugenics movement of the 1920’s, it also crafts a complex protagonist as pretentious as she is vulnerable. Meet Rowan Collier, teenage cripple and sideshow freak. Forced into the Eugenics Council’s “Unfit Family Show," Rowan must endure the laughs, jeers and pity of countless fair-goers daily. But before the 1916 polio scare ravaged her left leg, and before her self-proclaimed fittest family abandoned her to the Boston Home for Crippled Children, Rowan enjoyed all the pomp and luxury of Manhattan’s uppercrust. And after meeting brazen orphan (and pick-pocket) Dorchy at the fair, the two misfits flee their abusive employers for the anonymity of rural Cape Cod.

Just three days later, however, the Council confronts Rowan and Dorchy over their less-than-legal escape. The girls, in turn, must make a seemingly easy choice: two weeks of paid employment at the Council’s Camp for Unfortunates or criminal charges.

"Not only does Susan Monger’s novel delve into the festering eugenics movement of the 1920’s, it also crafts a complex protagonist as pretentious as she is vulnerable."

But as more and more “unfit” campers succumb to a mysterious strain of influenza, Rowan and Dorchy race against time --- and foreboding camp director Vera Van --- to uncover the secrets lurking on the Loup Island campground.

Don’t mistake Rowan for one more angst-ridden debutante; although the vestiges of haughtiness linger in her worldview, Rowan’s past doesn’t define her present. But as much as Rowan and Dorchy transcend their social classes, the friends’ conflicting backgrounds always loom at the edge of their --- and your --- awareness.

Monger’s expansive knowledge of the 1920’s informs her minute, often playful eye for detail. From the villainous Ms. Ogilvie’s false teeth to the sideshow “half-snake, half-woman” to the supposed panacea that is Gurdey’s Farmer-Tested Udder Cream, these bursts of whimsy help brighten a pitch-black premise. And if Gurdey’s renowned udder cream leavens a weighty plotline, thoughtful symbolism deepens a slow start into a poignant glimpse of Rowan’s past. (Don’t worry, all you thrill-seekers: a madcap escape across New England and rumors of genocide more than rev up the pacing.)

Fleeing from the clamorous fairgrounds to the salt-crusted dunes of Cape Cod to the pine-tufted crags of Loup Island might broaden Rowan’s outlook, but the frequent, often frantic changes in scenery also fracture the plotline. Rowan and Dorchy revolt against head counselor Vera Van after only three days; I, however, yearned for a longer stay at the Camp for Unfortunates. After knowing the campers for just a handful of scenes, I didn’t exactly agonize over their well-being (or lack of it). Although the ending’s breakneck pace gripped my attention, the sparse prose sometimes strayed into summary. By the last page, I craved the stillness of sumptuous imagery, not the rush of action.

Then again, I can’t exactly berate petty flaws in a novel celebrating imperfection. The raw ending might not resolve, but it satisfies. And however cold Monger’s prose, her stark --- even skeletal --- writing still sparks anguish, rage, and, ultimately, joy in readers’ hearts.

Reviewed by Alison S., Teen Board Member on March 22, 2016

Of Better Blood
by Susan Moger