“Evidence of V” by Sheila O’Connor

Reviewed by Chelsea Biondolillo

V Book Cover

280 pp Rose Metal Press

WHY: Because the truth was always missing. Because there is no truth. […]Because we are living in V’s white space, where very little can be known.

–Sheila O’Connor, Evidence of V

Evidence of V tells the story of author Sheila O’Connor’s search to learn the history of her maternal grandmother, referred to in the text only as “V”. V was a woman that O’Connor’s mother had grown up believing was her aunt, fallen from grace and shunned by the family. An accidental slip by a relative, and a subsequent search for information by O’Connor and her mother, finds that V became pregnant at 15, and in an apparently not uncommon practice, sentenced by the state to the Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre for “immorality”. 

Even though the charge didn’t carry a criminal penalty, V’s guardianship was awarded to Sauk Centre until her twenty-first birthday. While incarcerated, V gave birth to O’Connor’s mother, a baby she named June, and lived there with her for the first three months of June’s life, before the baby was taken away, and ultimately adopted by V’s sister. 

These are the bare bones of the story. And yet, they grow from the smallest seeds, because the “evidence” of V is less than scant. V has left little proof of herself behind, it seems, except June. 

It’s in the space between knowable information that O’Connor’s prose crafts a riveting narrative of V herself; how she wanted to be a showgirl at 15, how she met and fell in love with the older Mr. C, O’Connor’s possible grandfather, how she fared at Sauk, and how she felt about her baby.

the imaginary is what tends to become real

–Maggie Nelson, Jane: A Murder

Formally and contextually, Evidence calls to mind Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder, a collage of poetry and prose about the murder of Nelson’s aunt, three years before Nelson was born. Like Jane, Evidence is built from real and imagined fragments. On the page, both authors allow the fragments to shimmer on their own—the abundant white space a visual reminder of all that happens between the pages of a diary or police report. But there are key differences. Following the publication of Jane, Nelson said of researching it, “the problem was not too little information. It was too much.” O’Connor has only a “slim archive” from the state and one worn folder of photocopies from June to go on, and little else. Both books build their subject from negative space, creating their own evidence of love and longing for what has been lost.

V collaged from pieces that I paste into a girl.

–O’Connor, Evidence

Evidence is “A novel in fragments, facts, and fictions”—O’Connor is open about what she does and doesn’t know—and her own narration often breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to readers in square brackets. There she records her questions, her discoveries, and her fears about what knowing could grant, and what not-knowing keeps hidden, and who benefits from no one ever knowing the facts of V.

The formal effect of these disparate pieces is that of looking through a box of ephemera. O’Connor makes the reader complicit in the investigation, as we, too, sift through the files, the ledgers, the notices, the official decrees, the court judgments—in some cases offering only a bland line of text as clue—and we examine them with and along O’Connor. It is a remarkable feat, pulled off with all the grace and control of a trapeze swinger, this moving from the known to the unknowable and back.

The book builds its riveting (and often infuriating—as the injustices pile up against V and June) narrative through erasures, lists, quotes, and wonderings. And through it all, O’Connor’s confident fiction carries the story of V forward, making the reader investigator, witness, and advocate for V, against a system with little care for her short- or long-term well-being, and (O’Connor reminds us often) for that of thousands of other young women like her.

In an interview with NPR, O’Connor noted that, “The form of the book reflects secrecy and absence…. In many ways this is the work of family history, or even national history, when there is an investment in secrecy or silence. How do we make peace with what we can’t know?”

[The inheritance of fiction. Fiction as survival.]

–O’Connor, Evidence

On the first page of Evidence, O’Connor says that “V [is] a fiction built of fragments, as girls so often are.” We understand, then, that this is not just V and June and O’Connor’s story. V’s life is born onto the page to give voice to thousands of young women like her, incarcerated for morality charges. 

Whether V’s and June’s story is your or my family story, it is still our story and it should rattle and anger even as it hollows out a soft spot in the heart for these fierce and sorrowful unsung stories. While the institution V was sentenced to in 1936 was called a “school,” as others like it were, rather than a jail, these homes sought to “cure” women and rehabilitate them into trustworthy homemakers. The schools did this through isolation, abuse, and shame, and they were in wide use throughout the early part of the twentieth century.

O’Connor lists, “Chillicothe, Tipton, Kearney, Beloit, Plankinton, Mitchellville, Hudson, Geneva, Lancaster, etc etc. […] In Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, New York Massachusetts, California—as in the Magdalene’s in Ireland”, where tens of thousands of young women were also sentenced to household labor as penitence for being immoral, incorrigible, or ungovernable. She reminds readers that V’s punishment and subsequent trauma is not an aberrant occurrence, but part of a national story, a global story.

At once a novel, historical account, and social criticism, Evidence becomes a moving record of O’Connor’s attempt to reckon with what our mothers and their mothers have been subjected to: a chain of punishments for crimes never committed, what powerful shaming and silencing was at work—which she calls, “Amnesia of our history”—, and how that shame and fear echoes through the cells of these, and all the women who come after them. What O’Connor understands and wants to share is that to understand the forces, good and bad, that made you is to understand the forces that still make you. 

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Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of The Skinned Bird and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. She lives outside of Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Kerry McQuaid