Finding Jane – and saving lives

Review: Vivien Horler

Looking for Jane, by Heather Marshall (Hodder Studio)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the Roe v Wade court decision that legalised abortion in the US, there was an underground abortion network based in the Chicago area. It was unofficially called the “Janes”.

The idea was that a woman who did not want to be pregnant could phone various doctor’s offices, asking for “Jane”, and if she hit upon one of the participating practices she could arrange a safe abortion.

Similar networks, not necessarily called “Jane”, operated around the US and in Canada and may – in the case of the US since Roe v Wade was overturned – need  to be set up again.

But this isn’t a novel about abortion – it’s about a woman’s right to make her own choices relating to reproduction. Or as author Heather Marshall says in her author’s note, it’s about motherhood.

The novel starts with one of those ever-popular fictional devices, a misdelivered letter (emails will never be quite as useful to novelists).

It is 2017 in Toronto, and Angela, who works in a shop that sells antiques and books, finds an unopened letter in a bureau drawer datemarked seven years previously. It is addressed to the shop, but was obviously been intended for the tenant of the flat upstairs.

Feeling mildly guilty, Angela opens it to find it’s a letter from an adoptive mother to her daughter Nancy, telling her for the first time that she was adopted. And the letter makes it clear that it was to be posted only after the adoptive mother, Frances, has died.

Frances tells Nancy she was born in the St Agnes’s  Home for Unmarried Mothers, and that Nancy’s real mother had willingly given her up for adoption, being young, single and poor.

But years later Frances discovers this was not the truth; that girls in the home were forced to give up their babies. And in her letter Frances encourages Nancy to seek out her birth mother, “to find solace in my death by reuniting with your Other Mother”.

Frances adds: “If I have learned anything from this, it is not to keep secrets. They fester like wounds, and take even longer to heal once the damage sets in. It’s permanent, and crippling, and I want more for you than that.”

But it turns out that Nancy is a  secret-keeper of note.

Angela decides she must find Nancy, who of course no longer lives upstairs, and pass on the life-changing letter.

(This isn’t a spoiler – all this has happened by page 13 of the nearly 400-page novel.)

The narrative then backtracks to 1961, the year Nancy is born at St Agnes’s. The home is run like a prison by nuns, professional virgins who, on the whole, have little sympathy for their charges.

Two young pregnant women, Margaret and Evelyn, share a dormitory and become close friends, despite a policy that the girls are to keep to themselves.

Fast forward to 1979 – abortions became legal in Canada only in 1988 – and Nancy, now 18, accompanies her pregnant cousin to a back-street abortionist. The experience for both Nancy and the cousin is horrific, and ends up with the hemorrhaging cousin being rushed to hospital.

In emergency  Nancy is questioned about what she knows of her cousin’s condition, because it is pretty clear she has had an illegal abortion. And then a sympathetic doctor tells Nancy: “If you, or a friend, or any other girl close to you ends up pregnant when they don’t want to be, you need to call around to doctors’ offices and ask for Jane.”

This ultimately leads Nancy to becoming a volunteer with the Janes, and there are some pretty terrifying scenes involving police raids on clinics where Nancy is helping out.

Will Angela ever find Nancy to tell her about her background? Will Nancy ever find Margaret, her “Other Mother”? And how does being a keeper of secrets stifle Nancy’s life?

In saying this story is about motherhood, Marshall writes in her author’s note: “[It’s] about wanting to be a mother and not wanting to be a mother… it’s about the lengths to which women will go to end a pregnancy, and to become pregnant.” There is the terror of getting pregnant by accident and the terror of not getting pregnant when you want to.

It’s also about the horror of having no say over the future of your baby. Marshall tells us that between 1945 and 1971 almost 600 000 babies were born to unmarried mothers in Canada, and that more than half of those mothers were ‘forced or coerced’ into surrendering their babies for adoption.

Occasionally I was mildly confused by the way the narrative hopped about chronologically, but on the whole this is a rich, thought-provoking and – since the US Supreme Court decision in June – a highly topical story.




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