Nancy Bo Flood’s No Name Baby is a multifaceted story, set in the aftermath of World War II, of a teenager’s discovery of family secrets. In this poetic and compassionate telling, readers are drawn into Sophie’s story as she learns her mother is not her birthmother and a family secret slowly unravels as she learns that her aunt Rae is the woman who gave birth to her. While this is a novel of family secrets revealed, it is also the story of Sophie’s coming of age. The novel opens with Sophie refusing to help her mother with the family’s pigs. When her mother falls and goes into premature labor, Sophie believes it is her fault. Her new baby brother is born so early, his survival is uncertain. According to one reviewer, “Flood succeeds in creating a story that doesn’t pull any punches about life or death, but it’s far from grim – we’re left with a great appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit.”
As the novel unfolds, it’s easy to imagine the cost of the secrets this family has kept. But the lost relationship between a birthmother and her daughter is especially poignant. I found my own heart especially went out to Aunt Rae, a birthmother who hides her lovetorn heart and fears that her secret daughter, who is falling in love for the first time, could repeat her mistakes. Yet with the secret lifted from their lives, Sophie and Aunt Rae may have a new opportunity to make this complex relationship work.
In reviewing the complex relationship, Nancy Bo Flood responded to some questions I had about her interest in the closed adoption triangle of the past, and the value of setting secrets aside:
What sparked the idea for Sophie’s story?
As far as I know, in our family there are no secret “no-name babies,” but sometimes secrets stay secrets.
My grandmother told me many times about the birth of my uncle, the “baby in a box.” He was not much bigger than a scrawny bony half-grown chicken – plucked. Her Italian mother-in-law kept that premature baby alive, massaging him regularly with warm olive oil, swaddling him in soft cotton, and keeping him warm in the oven of their wood stove. The box was a cigar box. That story stayed tucked away in my heart.
I wrote No-Name Baby for other reasons I never knew until the discovery of story unfolded.
Years later when I was a newly graduated psychologist, I wanted to contribute something significant improving mental health care. My areas of interest were little kids and old people. My first job was at a State Psych Hospital, touted as being “excellent.” I walked through the dark dismal corridors of the women’s geriatric unit then sat down with a stack of patient files, each nearly a foot thick. I glanced down the hall. Old women sat hunched over. Mostly all I could see was stringy gray hair and rounded boney backs. The fragrance of old pee permeated the wooden floors.
I looked through file after file and was horrified. Most of the women had been committed (incarcerated) as young teens, not even out of high school. The most frequent diagnosis was not what I expected – not schizophrenia or depression, not bipolar or character disorders. Their diagnosis was their sin, premarital sex. Unwed mothers. Victims of rape. Accused and cursed, girls of loose morals who had tasted sex or vomited on it.
After commitment the women suffered through a half-century of “treatment.” Many had experienced over 500 electric shock treatments, sometimes insulin shock treatments. For a while the treatment of choice was being wrapped tightly and dunked in freezing water. I wondered if any woman after commitment ever again tasted freedom.
Their insanity was sex. Even my own mother during WWII had to choose between marriage and college. Married women were meant to stay home. Pregnant women were not to be seen and certainly not appropriate teachers for innocent children. Yes, World War II did change women’s employment status and ability to work outside the home. In the seventies, women fought for equal rights, in education, employment and reproduction. Women’s rights. Women’s choices. Dear daughters, please do not take your freedom to choose, to work, to be educated – and even to keep or relinquish a child—for granted. Women’s rights are new and fragile. And still deeply controversial.
How did you explore the ways family secrets can frame a family’s dynamics in earlier drafts?
The secret of birth mothers continues to be a secret clothed in shame and silence. Their loss and grieving is seldom recognized. How many of us have ever been asked by a woman to listen so she can tell her experience of being a birth mom who has relinquished a child? Women’s sexuality in our country continues to be a conundrum of secrecy, shame and “badness.”
If you were to write a contemporary version of this story, would the secret have worked?
Knowing my character’s back stories was essential to developing them as real people. To write No-Name Baby I had to know my characters as real people (aren’t they real people?). Funny, in thinking about this question, I realize that Sophie and Aunt Rae, and everyone in the book are still “real people” talking to me from time to time. There is even one character, Aunt Sarah, who I needed to take out of the book after many revisions. She stands with her hands on her hips still a little cross with me. When am I going to write HER story, she frowns?
Understanding the character’s motivations, showing their reactions to events, creating their conversations with each other – all of this really, is coming to feel what is in their hearts. As an author I can feel what is in their hearts once I know their personal histories. Just like real life! We begin to understand another person as we begin to learn about their life.
No-Name Baby’s setting: I grew up in an Italian – Czech family in the rural, midwestern small town of Braidwood, Illinois. Train tracks divided the Italian side from the Czech side. My grandparents were farmers and I spent summers on the farm chasing cats from the milk house, picking eggs with my grandmother and playing wild horses with cousins.
Book’s journey: I brought the manuscript to a Whole Novel Workshop offered by Highlights Foundation. Stephen Roxburgh led the workshop. After he had read the manuscript we met to discuss its strengths and problems. I was shaking as I sat down across from him. Why did I ever think I could write, I kept asking myself. I knew this novel was very different from my previous work. We both agreed that one challenge in this story is that at one level, nothing really happens. No big action scenes. No chase scenes. I shall always remember his first comment, something like this - this story made me cry. It has heart.
I cried. Stephen Roxburgh is an amazing, brilliant editor. He asks the hard questions that are needed to see one’s manuscript with fresh eyes and to see the problems. He somehow gives one the confidence that “yes, you can. You can write this story – even better.”
The secret of birth mothers is one that was historically one of shame. Do you believe there is still a stigma for birth mothers who place their babies in other families or with relatives for adoption?
I believe that secrets are part of every family. It takes courage, especially as a young adult, to seek them out, to face them. And then to accept, learn and grow into one’s own being, still connected to family but pursuing one’s own dreams and passions.
How do you think the issue of family secrets should be handled?
Something I believe is that we write to understand the secrets in our own lives. We rewrite to create the best, and truest, story possible, because of the people who have touched our lives. Through story we hope to extend the connection of human hearts and understand our own.”
What are you working on now?
Today I live in the southwest where the landscape is incredible, poetic, sparse. I teach as an adjunct instructor of Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff) on the Reservation. I used to teach for the Navajo Community College, Dine’ College. My husband is a pediatrician, working at the hospital at Chinle – Canyon deChelly. We both work with local organizations to increase the awareness of the importance of early literacy. More books, more libraries, more programs are needed to continue to connect books with families. I love the local rodeos, the skill of the riders – young women and men – is amazing. Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo is my attempt to give tribute to these riders and their horses. This book of verse, poetry and photographs is being published by BoydsMills Press and will be out early next year.
Thank you for your thoughtful questions and interest in No Name Baby. Especially, thank you for your concern and support for all mothers – those who adopt babies, those who relinquish.
Ann Angel is the author of, most recently, Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, which won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, among other awards. She is also the co-editor, with her daughter Amanda, of the anthology about birth births, Silent Embrace, published by Catalyst Book Press.