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Meagan Church Turns Focus on Baby Scoop Era in New Novel

'The Girls We Sent Away' author discusses historical fiction, feminism and saving the cat

Meagan Church's new novel, 'The Girls We Sent Away,' explores the life of one girl caught up in the Baby Scoop Era
Meagan Church’s new novel, ‘The Girls We Sent Away,’ explores the life of one girl caught up in the Baby Scoop Era. (Photo courtesy of Meagan Church)

Meagan Church remembers being with her dad in a video rental store as a child in the late -1980s when he ran into an old high school friend. Being a small town in rural Indiana, meeting someone her dad once knew but she didn’t was not a common occurrence.

“When I asked him who she was, he said that they went to school together, but they didn’t graduate together because, ‘In that time, if a woman got pregnant, she was sent away and she couldn’t graduate. Let’s put it that way,’” Church recalled. “That little bit of information stuck with me over the years.”

Church’s father was referring to the Baby Scoop Era, an oft-forgotten period in US history, starting after the end of World War II and ending around 1972, when countless girls and women experiencing premarital pregnancies were sent off to maternity homes. There they would carry out their pregnancy to term, only to then be in some cases forced or pressured to give the baby up for adoption.

Released in March, Church’s new book, The Girls We Sent Away, tells the tale of one such young girl, Lorraine, growing up in a Charlotte suburb in the ’60s with her eyes on valedictorian status when an unplanned pregnancy rips her from her family and finds her sent away to a home for unwed mothers.

We caught up with Church following the book’s release to discuss the inspirations behind it and what she’s learned from readers during her subsequent book tours.

Queen City Nerve: Your new book is located in Charlotte, in a neighborhood called Sunnymede. I assume that’s fictional?

Meagan Church: Sunnymede is actually the name of the neighborhood [where my family] lived in South Bend, Indiana. In my mind, I thought of it more as the Shannon Park neighborhood that exists here in Charlotte because in The Girls We Sent Away, the proximity to Charlotte, plus the fact that it has a neighborhood pool and when the houses were built in that time frame. So it’s loosely inspired by Shannon Park, but the name itself was inspired by our old neighborhood in South Indiana.

Your debut novel, The Last Carolina Girl, took place partly on the North Carolina coast and partly in your current hometown of Matthews. How did you decided on that?

With the first book, I thought that I would set it in Indiana because I started work on it shortly after we moved here and Indiana was a landscape I knew best. The inspiration behind that one, because it’s a story that has to do with forced sterilization and eugenics, I discovered that a great-aunt of mine had been sterilized by the state of Indiana when she was around 12 years old.

With that being the state that sterilized her, I thought that would be the setting. But my first bit of research showed me North Carolina’s history and specifically Mecklenburg County’s history with sterilization. That was when I knew the story needed to be set in North Carolina, which really I did myself a favor because North Carolina has so much beauty, and by setting it here, nature was able to become a character within the book.

Then as far as with The Girls We Sent Away, I decided on Charlotte, but the maternity home itself, the location is never defined. I did that for a couple of reasons, partly because I didn’t want any maternity home to come to me and say, “That was not what we did, that wasn’t how we operated,” because they really did operate in a variety of ways. But I also wanted the reader to have a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty, just like the girls in the book had.

What is it that attracts you to writing historical fiction?

Honestly, historical fiction is the genre that my publisher chooses for me because my stories have so far happened to be set in the past. To me, it’s more about exploring women’s stories and voices throughout time, which could even include contemporary stories moving forward. It was just with the inspiration of my aunt’s sterilization that it had to be set in in the past.

Baby Scoop Era
‘The Girls We Sent Away’

Then when I found out about the practice of maternity homes, especially in the ‘60s, in the time period that my parents were graduating high school, again, it happened to fall in that historical timeline. I find these ideas or these bits of history or information that start to get under my skin. The more I read about it and research and the more it irritates me, that’s when I know that I have a story idea. I don’t worry so much about what the time period it is, it’s more of who the character of that story is.

Did you localize your research in terms of finding maternity homes like these in the Charlotte area?

Honestly, because I knew the maternity home would not be set here in Charlotte, I didn’t worry about that. I do know that The Florence Crittenton Home existed here, and I believe still exists to some degree. Now, Florence Crittenton, just to be clear, had a mission of keeping mother and baby together. I don’t want to imply in any way that they practiced in the way that’s represented within the book.

But I did enough research and listened to enough women’s stories of what they endured in those sorts of facilities that I didn’t necessarily dig into one specifically. It’s more of just an all-encompassing conglomeration of different experiences that women had.

Your two books are similar in the sense of a young girl coming of age and being yanked out of her idyllic world and forced into a strange place against her will and having to adapt to that. Does that come from some personal experience?

So all through college, I was always fascinated with coming-of-age stories, which both of these fall within that category. I think a lot of times that’s part of the journey within a coming-of-age story. But the other thing is that both of these stories are really a search for home and an understanding of what that is.

Me moving here to the South, while that was my own decision and we had autonomy and agency, over these past nine years, I have been asking myself that question of, “What is home? Where does home actually exist?” While I did not have the experience like my main characters of being forced out of my home, I think it comes through in my fiction that that’s just been part of my journey over the last years is questioning home.

There was this juxtaposition of the Space Race occurring in the background of this book, not heavily featured but it’s there in the sense that Lorraine wants to be an astronaut and in other way. What inspired the inclusion of that? 

Part of that inspiration of setting it at the intersection of the Space Race and the Baby Scoop era is because when I was trying to nail down exactly what year the story would take place, 2019, that was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. My youngest daughter was 7 at the time, and she has been an astronaut hopeful since basically the age of 3. I am a nerd. I just love information and context in history in a way that I didn’t necessarily in high school. But she and I both were just so fascinated by learning more about the Space Race during 2019. 

I just thought, “How did we have this moment in time when men were literally blasting out of our atmosphere to land on moon dust hundreds of thousands of miles away, when at that exact moment, there were women who, like you said, were yanked out of their homes, who were sent away, who then were lost, alone, afraid and ashamed?”

The Baby Scoop era itself spans 1945 to 1973, but it was realizing when the Space Race was happening, that that was when I decided that the story itself would be told in the mid ’60s, with that endpoint being the launch itself in 1969. 

Meagan Church grew up in northern Indiana and moved to the Charlotte area about 15 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Meagan Church)

Something I noticed that grabbed me as a reader was how you added nuance to some of the more unlikable characters, but you almost did it in a delayed way. Some characters came off as the worst people for much of the book, then there would be a first-person chapter or even half a chapter from their point of view where the reader is like, “Oh, this is why they are this way.” You can be empathetic with them, finally, for a little bit, or at least see their point of view. Was that purposeful in terms of waiting that long and then going first person without having done it earlier in the book? 

Yeah, I made a very conscious decision. My first book is told in first-person perspective because I wanted that to be a very narrow look through the lens of this girl’s eyes. She was up against this tragedy within society. With The Girls We Sent Away, I purposefully chose a perspective that gave me room to be more flexible in the point of view. That was third person because we could get close third person into Lorraine while also dipping in and out of other people’s perspectives, but still, it’s always this omniscient narrator who’s telling this story. In my mind, though it’s never stated within the text, it’s almost the neighborhood who’s telling the cautionary tale of this girl. 

I love what you said about how the reader can have a bit of empathy for them, even those that we might otherwise categorize as the villains within the story, because in my writing I want to just explore humanity, which is often far more nuanced than what we like to think that it is. These characters who, in some regard can come off as very basic or black and white, the more we understand perhaps what their underlying motivations are, the more we can hopefully come to terms with what their decisions are.

Whether they’re making the right or wrong one is up for debate, but I like for the reader to go on the journey and to think they have somebody figured out before they learn some new information that might change their perspective, because honestly, I think that’s how we exist within the real world; we have to always be open to that nuance that exists. 

There are a lot of scenes involving small animals littered throughout — Lorraine following a cat or the girls at the home feeding the squirrels, etc. Is that something that’s just a personal interest of yours, or was it meant to serve as some deeper symbolism? 

I would say yes to both, all of the above (laughs), because to me, I am a lover of nature and animals, and so that will always come through in my stories. But it goes back to the Save the Cat theory of writing; the thought is that regardless of how the main character acts, as long as they can save the cat, then the reader will pull for them.

So think of Rocky, for example. When the very first Rocky opens, we’re uncertain of who this tough guy is. We’re not sure if we really like him. But what happens in the beginning of that movie? He’s walking through the streets and he’s having this monologue to himself, then he walks into a pet store. The moment he walks into the pet store and starts caring for those animals, we know — subconsciously, perhaps — but we know that this is a guy who has some goodness in him somewhere, even if he’s the strong fighter.

I think that Save the Cat always plays out in my mind, that as long as you can show somebody showing care toward animals, then the reader is going to feel a little bit of goodness for that character. 

Both of your novels have a feminist bent or can at the very least be read through that lens. What have you learned about your own feminist views or expression of those views while working on these books? 

I have to be completely honest; I have always been one who has been quiet about ever labeling myself as feminist because I grew up as a good Midwestern girl. “Feminist” was sometimes considered a four-letter word. I remember I posted on social media years ago and I said, “Some may call me a feminist, but…” I had a friend challenge me on that. She’s like, “What’s wrong with being called a feminist?” That really helped shift and change my perspective. Then over the years, I’ve definitely come to realize that, yes, I 100% am a feminist. 

But really, I don’t set out to write a story or to tell a story because of any agenda that’s behind it. I often talk about the proverbial rose-colored glasses that we can wear when we look back nostalgically on our history. We’ve survived our history. We’ve made it through. I think in some ways, then we find comfort in seeing only the good parts of what was in our past. But when we take off those rose-colored glasses and we look closely, a lot of times what we find shakes us, and it really should.

I just want to take a close examination of those stories — especially women’s voices, women’s stories. And just everyday women as well, not necessarily some strong figure who we all know from history, but just an average everyday woman and an experience that she has had within our society that really has become forgotten history — forgotten or even unknown. 

When we talk about sterilization or even the Baby Scoop Era, a lot of people don’t even know that these practices existed. Again, it’s less about an agenda of feminism and more about, let’s take a moment to really explore what everyday women have been up against. 

Earlier when I asked about it, you fell back on the response, “Well, my publisher chooses historical fiction,” but I do think that you just explained why, between the two hidden/forgotten history plot lines that you have focused on, you clearly do have a passion for doing that uncovering or unveiling that historical fiction can often involve. 

Now, I do have a contemporary story brewing that I hope to write at some point. I’m not necessarily always sticking with historical, but I think it’s a lot easier for us to examine these stories if they’re in our past because we feel more detached from it, whereas if a similar experience would happen in the present then perhaps we wouldn’t always be as receptive to what’s happening because it doesn’t align with our political views.

Sometimes we really do need time away to examine and better understand. When you’re in the heat of the moment, it’s just too soon. We need to take a close examination. 

Church learned of the Baby Scoop Era in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Meagan Church)

What has the feedback been like since the book’s release? 

The feedback has been fascinating. First of all, the Washington Post reviewed the book, and just some of that has really been amazing. But really, it’s the reader responses. Even when I was on my book tour for my first one and I was talking about this one coming out, women already started sharing their stories with me, whether they were in maternity homes or their mothers were or they knew somebody or whatever the case may be. 

As soon as the book was released, I’ve been getting emails from women, or a lot of times at events there will be somebody who waits at the end of the line and then leans in and whispers their story to me. The Washington Post and that coverage is great, but it’s really these women sharing their experiences, whether it’s personal or second-hand or whatever, and just being thankful that a book is starting a conversation to bring awareness to what really has been overlooked at this point.

Read other interviews with historical fiction authors of North Carolina:

Mimi Herman Discusses Debut Novel ‘The Kudzu Queen’ (2023)

Meredith Ritchie Explores Forgotten Part of Charlotte History in Debut Novel (2022)

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