Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions by Sheila O’Connor (Rose Metal Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
We are not taught to think of women in prison. The cells which contain women, we are told, are physical, social – women are victims, and men their assailants. Like so much gendered terminology, we have prisons, and then we have women’s prisons. As if an afterthought, as if a near impossibility that a woman might have the ability, the audacity to act against the norm. Have we not, we ponder, created enough of a cage for women out of invisible walls – out of the nuances of our socially constructed expectations, exploitations? And what to do with a girl who is not considerate of the walls we have put up for her? What to do with a girl who wants something else?
In Sheila O’Connor’s genre-defying novel Evidence of V, we consider not only questions of imprisoned women, but also of girlhood fantasies, parentage, ethics, and what can and cannot be found in the archives of history. In the book, O’Connor explores the highly fictionalized character of her maternal grandmother, built from scraps of Minnesota state archives, research, and family legend. The result is a kind of Cubist portrait of a fiery, dreamy woman, whose ambitions lead to an unplanned pregnancy, incarceration, and betrayal by her own family. Told in snippets of historical record, poetry, and lyric prose, Evidence of V is an attempt to remember what much of America wants to forget; namely, what we have done to women to satisfy our own ideas about who and what a woman should be.
On the surface, Evidence of V tells the story of O’Connor’s maternal grandmother, a fifteen-year-old girl named V who dreams of becoming a famous singer. V is talented, but comes from a troubled family; after her mother is widowed, she and her siblings are taken in by her mother’s new husband, Ray, who drinks and sexually abuses them. V finds solace in a man called Mr. C, a shadowy figure described in the records as only “Nightclub manager. Jewish. Age 35” (25). Mr. C hears V singing on the street and invites her to perform at his club, where V is hopeful and in love. She quickly gets involved romantically with Mr. C, staying at the club after her performances are done and visiting him at hotels on school days.
V dreams of being a showgirl, a singer. She dances, and makes good money. She encourages her mother to leave her stepfather, to live on her salary – her mother is confused, and rejects her. V begins to look suspicious to police officers, who find her on the streets during school days, and suspect her of being “delinquent.” Around this time, V begins to suspect she is pregnant:
“No, V is not a mother.
Still, she senses a small nub inside her soul, and uninvited second spirit, a light illuminating all that is behind her, and ahead. Light invisible. Unwanted” (41)
Soon, V is found out; not only her career as a showgirl and her relationship with an older, Jewish man, but also the nub of a baby, which she calls “rabbit.” As is the custom in those days, V is sentenced to the Home School in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a reformatory “school” for “fallen women” most of whom are pregnant with an illegitimate child.
“Because no crime has been committed, because a house has not been robbed, because nothing has been vandalized or stolen, and no one has been harmed, except for V, there is no crime for which she has been charged. Instead, the state commits V as IMMORAL: an offense against society. An offense reserved for girls.” (63)
The following pages, which make up the majority of the novel, chronicle V’s life at the Home School, her bond with fellow delinquent girls, and a continued legacy of abuse at the hands of a man assigned to be her guardian. It also chronicles V’s love for her daughter, June, and their separation, making room for Sheila O’Connor and her mother to appear, many decades later, in the state archives of Minnesota, searching for June’s true parentage.
It is rare to find a book which so compellingly illuminates the history of female incarceration, and wayward mothers – this is not because the practice was uncommon, but because these women were relegated to remote areas where they might more easily be subdued and forgotten. Though O’Connor’s work is, in part, the uncovering of a makeshift family record, her research is much farther reaching than a single family, or a single pregnant teenager. Evidence of V forces us to reconcile the ways that trauma, poverty, and female desire turn “proper ladies” into “wayward girls” – it is also a record, in print, of the ways we punish women for having desires, for making choices, for being the wrong kind of mother.
Like V, Sheila O’Connor refuses to write a novel that fits into a neat and tidy box. Her book is both a memoir and a novel, both an archival record and a fantasy. The novel is written in prose, except in the spaces where it isn’t – like V, it is a book which is resolute in its identity, a book which insists upon its own way of being.
Though Evidence of V is in many ways a tragedy, I left the book feeling vindicated; feeling as if, in some subtle way, V was vindicated, too. V, as in vindicated, or, as O’Connor finishes her novel:
“V. Venal vortex villain vacant.. vivacious
vulva and vagina vast varied…
vain versatile verdict…
to V or not to V…
vivid voiceless …