When Susan Moger decided to write YA, all she needed was her family tree. An 80-year-old journal was essential inspiration, its 16-year-old author the perfect backdrop for a protagonist determined to overcome all odds. A different relative contracted polio in 1916 at age four, forcing her to undergo extensive treatment and wear crutches, giving Moger first-hand look at the complicated history around the disease.
Relying on her experience from writing and editing countless articles and the book Teaching the Diary of Anne Frank, Moger used various articles, sources, and a family history to craft her debut YA novel Of Better Blood.
Of Better Blood is the story of Rowan Collier, a polio victim in the 1920’s. After contracting the disease and undergoing treatment, she is hired out to a traveling “Unfit Family” spectacle modeled after the eugenics fairs that peppered the Midways and boardwalks during the time period. While there, she meets Dorchy, a bold and brass Carnie who teaches Rowan how to stand up for herself and fight for others. The girls get a job assisting the New England Betterment Council at an island camp off of the coast of Maine. Once there, they discover a deadly secret which reveals how committed certain members are to the “fit” cause.
Although the Council is fictitious,there were countless organizations that were very similar. Internet sources, primarily the online archives of the Eugenics Records Office, were crucial for information about eugenics groups and “fit” exhibitions presented at state and county fairs throughout the 1920s.
“I chose 1922 because I wanted Rowan to have had polio at the time of the major polio epidemics in the Northeastern US, 1916 and 1917. I invented the Unfit Family Show, a logical extension of displays about the importance of good family background which were prominent displays.”
After extensive research on historical eugenics groups,the culture of the 1920’s and popular music of the time period, Moger looked to her family’s history. A diary recovered from a relative named Charlotte, was sixteen in 1923 and was the inspiration for Rowan’s voice.
”Charlotte usually wrote in complete sentences, unlike someone tweeting today, but could be very dramatic: “How am I going to live the summer out without him?” I soaked up the vocabulary and formality of Charlotte’s writing. In the end, Rowan has her own distinctive voice, but it’s inspired by those long-ago diary entries.”
The personal connection to Of Better Blood goes further. A different relative of Mogers’ had contracted polio in 1916 when she was four years old. Although she underwent extensive treatment and was able to walk with the assistance of crutches and braces, she was still shunned by her father, who “never wanted a crippled daughter”.
“She was still as devastated by his words as she had been all those years before. Since my inspiration for the book was those six words spoken in 1922, I never considered another time frame.”
Of Better Blood is not just a novel, but a warning. The 1920’s was the height of the American eugenics movement, and in 1927 the Supreme Court went so far as to allow the state of Virginia to sterilize a woman named Carrie Buck for being an “imbecile.” As Adam Cohen writes in his nonfiction work Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, this led to the sterilization of 70,000 Americans. Eugenics in America “fit the prejudices of the elite and ignored the rights of those labeled ‘different.’”
This court case has never been overturned.
The nation’s fervor was noticed by Adolf Hitler and praised in Mein Kampf, and American ideas were used during the Nazi regime to kickstart the euthanasia movement.
“The distinctions, ‘fit’ and ‘unfit,’ are alive and well today. Politicians still get cheers from demeaning, belittling and suggesting isolation of people different from themselves. In researching and writing my book Teaching the Diary of Anne Frank, I was horrified to learn what can happen when ordinary people turn a blind eye, tell themselves they have no choice, and allow evil to take root. Out of inertia or self-interest or fear, millions of ordinary people allowed the Holocaust to happen. Other ordinary people showed extraordinary courage in resisting that evil and helping others. We are the ordinary people of our time. It is up to us to be informed, to face facts, and to recognize and resist policies based on hatred and ignorance.”
Of Better Blood is available now.