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“Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening.” —Kirkus Reviews “Historical fiction that not only dep... Read More

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“Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Historical fiction that not only depicts a cruel, horrifying reality but also the strength and courage of the people who had to endure it.” —Booklist

In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized-and institutionalized them for life.

The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don’t think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn’t bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she’s ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life-altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.J. Albert Mann is the author of several middle grade and young adult novels, including The Degenerates and What Every Girl Should Know. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. She prefers books with unhappy endings to happy ones. Visit her at 1


London couldn’t stop thinking about the girl in the iron lung. The metal barrel had been keeping the girl alive now for two weeks. It was the same amount of time that London realized she had been keeping something alive inside her. One had nothing to do with the other, London knew, but she couldn’t help connecting them. Three miles away a girl was encased in a machine that was pushing air into and pulling air out of her lungs, tethering her to life. Just thinking about it made London suck in a deep breath of chilly October air as she walked down Chelsea, knowing that this air was sinking deep inside her… tethering her to a life, a very small life.

Better to think about the machine.

She pictured a bellows-like tool shoving air into each of the girl’s lungs, which London imagined looked like the pigs’ bladders hanging out to dry at Flannery’s butcher shop on Decatur.

The iron lung fascinated her. Not the polio part. London knew sickness well enough. Sickness had taken both her parents, along with thousands of others, ten years before, when the flu had swept through Boston. The only memory she had of her parents was the morning they’d all docked at the commonwealth pier following the long trip over from Abruzzo. It had been the summer of 1918, and she’d been only four years old, but she remembered her mother’s nervous, excited eyes as the ship pulled alongside the largest building London had ever seen. She remembered her father swinging her onto his shoulders, the smell of his hair, the feel of his smile through the long reach of her arms around his chin. He was dead within a month. Her mother didn’t last much longer. Sickness whisked people away from you in an instant—it was what it was. Girls living day in and day out inside iron machines, that was something else.

London felt close to the girl somehow. She herself had spent many nights trapped inside filthy orphanage dormitories or in even filthier foster homes, sleeping in rooms full of people she didn’t know while some sort of bellows-like force kept her alive.

Two weeks ago—the day the girl went into the iron lung—London had vomited into the leaf-choked gutter on her way to school. After spitting out as much as possible of the nasty taste of the old lady’s watery oatmeal and wiping the thick spit from her face with the back of her hand, she had turned toward the butcher shop on Decatur Street, and then stood on the sidewalk until Alby came out.

It had only taken him a moment to understand. London had always admired this about Alby, how quick-witted he was—his mind whipping colorfully about like the long row of flags lining the front of the Fairmont Copley Plaza on St. James. Her own mind moved more at the speed of the old milk wagons along Meridian. Although the expression on Alby’s face that morning was anything but colorful. Instead it had matched the bleached-out apron he wore, too early in the morning to be splashed with the dark red of blood. When he didn’t move from the shop door, London understood.

Alby was done with her.

She’d approached him. Controlled. Except for her eyes, which she could feel burning in their sockets. Alby didn’t move—as quick as his brain worked, it wasn’t quicker than London’s boot, and she kicked him hard, right in his goddamn plums.

The kick had been nice. After, she’d swiveled on her heel and headed to school, leaving him on his knees. She could feel him holding his tongue while he watched her walk away. London understood immediately that he did this for himself—not for her—so that later he might be proud of how he’d held back, turning his restraint into some sort of atonement or payment for what they’d done. It was a cheap price.

Hers would be higher.

Now London turned off Chelsea onto Bennington, and then crossed the bridge over the tracks. She didn’t mind heading to the old lady’s house. She’d lived all over Eastie in a hundred shitty places, where she had minded it a lot. Living with old lady Dumas suited her fine.

Thelma Dumas rented a single room on the second floor of a triple-decker. The sink ran only cold water and the room had no toilet, so London and the Missus—as London called the old lady—had to descend a flight of stairs and exit the back door to where an outhouse sat inside a yard surrounded by the ricketiest fence London had ever seen, and she’d lived all her life in East Boston, the land of rickety fences. Otherwise, the room wasn’t bad. Its sink was flanked by shelves lined with tins of food and an assortment of cracked dishes. There was also a coal stove that heated the room reasonably well, a table with three chairs, and two beds, one of which London had been sleeping in for three years. Her own bed. Besides a dress, coat, boots, and two pairs of underwear, it was all she could call her own.

Two of the chairs in the room sat on either side of the table, while the third was pulled up close to the room’s single window, which overlooked Bennington Street. This chair was where the old lady spent her days, and except for on the very coldest or rainiest, the window was always open. “To blow the stink out of the place,” the Missus would grumble.

But London knew it was really open for another reason—so the old woman, perched just inside it, might be able to share her lovely opinions with passersby. Opinions such as, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket,” and “Nobody’s listening,” and “Shit like this doesn’t happen in Chicopee,” the small town miles from Boston where the old woman had grown up and thus constantly upheld as the rightest location on earth. Although her favorite opinion, and therefore the one most oft repeated, was, “People are crap.”

The neighborhood was overly familiar with Thelma Dumas’s opinions, which were mostly ignored. However, London’s first few days of being exposed to them were enlightening. A swell of understanding rose within her, and she immediately felt this was the place for her, even if the Missus also believed that London was crap. London tended to agree. She quickly fell into the rhythm of life inside the single room on Bennington Street, staying longer here than she ever had anywhere else. Believing maybe she’d stay forever.

But now London knew her time on Bennington was likely limited. And maybe because of this, she began to notice things, like the way her boots stuck lightly to the greasy stairs as she climbed to the second floor, the crack in the umbrella stand outside Thelma Dumas’s door, or the way the old woman’s face sagged with sadness sometimes as she sat at the window.

London knew she’d have to tell the old woman eventually. She had little hope the Missus would allow her to stay. But then London had never been the hopeful type. She was fourteen, and it was nearly time for her to leave school for the factories anyway. She’d keep it from the old woman, find a job, and then save her scratch until the job fired her and the old woman most likely kicked her out. Past this, London didn’t allow herself to think or plan. Not being the hopeful type, she was also not one to believe things could work out differently from the way she saw them working out all around her every day. Therefore, she knew that this growing being inside her might very well soon be living with her own Thelma Dumas. Still, this stark thought had driven her deep inside herself. Perhaps it was why she didn’t notice that the door was ajar when she reached the second floor.

“Run!” the old lady growled, before she was knocked from her chair by an angry silver-haired cop looming over her.

London was so startled by the strange scene that she didn’t do anything in that first moment but watch the old woman’s head hit the window frame. That was a mistake—London’s hands were violently secured together, and she was shoved against the metal frame of the old woman’s bed, where she tumbled to the floor and then lay desperately trying to catch her breath.

She could hear the old lady shouting at the men. How many, London couldn’t tell. All she could see were boots surrounding the woman’s ratty slippers. London struggled to make sense of what was happening. What had she done? What had the Missus done? Besides the old lady’s hooch, London could think of nothing. Why would a crowd of bulls be interested in a couple of bottles of illegal whiskey?

The cops dragged the Missus from the floor and tossed her back into her chair. London’s head cleared. She could now see there were three cops, making five of them inside the small room, and they seemed to be talking about her. The entire scene was beyond anything London could understand. No one had ever taken any notice of her in her life, except for Alby, and that hadn’t turned out so well.

“I told you what would happen if you didn’t cooperate, you hag,” the silver-haired cop shouted into the old lady’s face.

She responded by spitting into his.

London closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see it, but she sure as hell heard it, as the woman’s head struck the window frame again.

London stumbled to her feet toward the Missus, but one of the badges grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her toward the door. London kicked and bit, fighting mightily to keep herself inside the room, but the cop was a genuine baby grand, and with his fist locked in her hair, her body followed her head, her boots scraping across the floor.

The cop stopped abruptly in the doorway, and London, hanging from his hand, finally caught her first solid glimpse of the old lady. Her face was bloodied, her gray hair was a tangled mess, and her dress’s collar was ripped off one of her shoulders, but her eyes shone more brightly than the electric streetlamps in Scollay Square.

“This dago bitch is a moron,” barked the cop holding London by the head, and he shook her in response to his words.

“Piss out your ass!” London cried.

London could hear the old lady’s cackling laughter over the crack of her own skull against the doorframe, making the pain more than worth it.

“Not only are you a moron,” the cop said, turning London’s head to face him, “but you’re also a knocked-up little slut.”

His words struck her harder than her head had hit the doorframe—hearing it like this, out in the open. Pregnant. Yes. She was pregnant. How this man could possibly know, or care, London didn’t have time to ponder. She went limp with confusion as the man jerked her out the door…. The last thing she saw was the old woman’s fists striking out at the gray-haired cop.

London threw herself back toward the room, grasping for the doorframe but only succeeding in slipping off her feet. Her cheek struck the umbrella stand, which spun down the sticky steps, cracking into loud shattering pieces.

“My umbrella stand!” Thelma Dumas screeched. “You broke my stand! That was from Chicopee!”

As London was dragged down the stairs past the shards of clay, the old woman’s voice rang in her ears over and over.

“Chicopee! Did you hear me! Chicopee, goddamn it!”

After London was tossed onto the floor of the waiting police wagon, she could still hear the old lady shouting the word “Chicopee”—that is, until the metal door was slammed and locked, and the vibration of the truck’s motor thumped into action beneath her chest.

The gritty floor felt cool against her throbbing cheek. It was dark in the metal box, and the girl in the iron lung sprang back into London’s mind. For a moment, London imagined she was there, curled up inside the lung, but then the truck ground into gear and jumped forward.

London leaped to her feet and beat the hell out of the locked door of the police wagon as the vehicle took off toward the tracks.

Later, she wished she’d taken one last look up at that window.
“The author portrays the movement's prejudice, racism, and violence with brutal realism; an author's note explains that the doctors' dehumanizing dialogue comes verbatim from real medical notes. Crucially, she reminds readers that such prejudice still exists. . . . Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening.”

Product Details

Title: TheDegenerates
Author: J. Albert Mann
SKU: BK0454721
EAN: 9781534419360
Language: English
Binding: Paperback

About Author

J. Albert Mann is the author of several middle grade and young adult novels, including The Degenerates and What Every Girl Should Know. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. She prefers books with unhappy endings to happy ones. Visit her at

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