In new book, Minnesota author draws attention to 'horrific' time in state's history

A woman speaks to a crowd.
Sheila O'Connor speaks at the book launch at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis on Oct. 26.
Courtesy of RMA Publicity

Hamline University creative writing professor Sheila O’Connor’s new book, “Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions” helps tell the story of her grandmother, as well as the story of a dark time in Minnesota history.

While she did not know her maternal grandmother, O’Connor now knows that in 1935, she gave birth at the age of 15 and — as punishment — was committed to the Minnesota Homeschool for Girls in Sauk Center, Minn., for six years.

“They considered the girls sex delinquents,” O’Connor said. “But the actual offenses at the time that she was committed were either immorality or incorrigibility.”

A book cover with a large V on it
“Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions.”
Courtesy of the publisher.

All of the girls sent to the “school,” no matter the age, were committed until age 21. Some were pregnant but many were just considered “immoral or in danger of becoming immoral.” The same was not true for boys of the era, she said.

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They spent the bulk of their time training to be domestic servants and housekeepers — until they were paroled at 18 at which point they would be sent to work as servants in private homes, O’Connor said.

This was all in accordance with the law in Minnesota at the time, but “there was no trial and there was no sentencing because there was no crime.”

Growing up, O’Connor wasn’t aware of this family history, she didn’t even know her own mother had been adopted.

“It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, early 2000s that I learned my mother had been in fact been born in Sauk Center to someone else and that these files were being held and archived at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul,” she said.

O’Connor blends fact and fiction in the book in order to tell the story of what happened in these places.

“The facts are quite horrific and they speak for themselves,” she said. “The fiction that exists in the book is my imagined sense of what happened to the character of V as a girl. Because she is no longer alive, no one is alive from 1935 that knew that story. In order for me to recreate someone who could have been my grandmother I needed fiction.”

O’Connor hopes her book can help make clearer how women and girls have been treated historically and how it relates to issues today.