In a real-world scenario where a woman’s reproductive choices are decreasingly hers to make, it is alluring to escape to a place where a woman can make her own decisions separately from the men who govern. Sara Flannery Murphy takes us to such a world in Girl One, now available in paperback. In this book, women don’t need men to build the family they desire. But even among these women who have achieved such a dream, there are dire consequences when they allow themselves to be divided by jealousy and competition to gain approval from the men involved.
Josephine “Josie” Morrow is Girl One, the first of nine “virgin”-birthed Miracle Babies born in the 1970s to nine mothers on a Vermont commune called the Homestead. Girls without fathers, born only to mothers, and that’s not their darkest secret. It’s not even a secret at all.
We meet Josie in 1992 at the age of 23, when she learns on the evening news that there has been a fire at her childhood home in Illinois and her mother, Margaret, is missing. Such a disappearance is newsworthy, as is anything related to Josie, Margaret, and the other Homesteaders. They’ve long been the focus of the press, religious fanatics who stalk and harass them, and men who bring them harm. As Josie says, “It might’ve been birth that put us on the map, but it was death that kept us there.”
When Josie was six, a fire at the Homestead claimed the lives of toddler Fiona – Girl Nine – and Joseph Bellanger, the scientist the Mothers brought to the Homestead to make their dreams of virgin birth possible. The fire, purportedly started by a religious fanatic who had long protested against the Homestead and the existence of the Miracle Babies, scattered the remaining mothers and daughters throughout the country. Margaret never spoke of those days, avoiding all of Josie’s questions about the other women, their relationships, and their history. This avoidance drove a wedge between Margaret and Josie, creating in Josie a longing to continue in the footsteps of her “father,” Bellanger.
“Tell the world about Fiona.” Josie finds this phrase written by her mother in a notebook hidden in their secret hiding spot in their home after Margaret’s disappearance. When Margaret goes missing, it’s been over a year since she and her daughter have spoken, the wedge between them widening when Josie began her graduate school work aiming to recreate Bellanger’s discoveries. Josie abandons her studies and returns to her hometown to begin the search that authorities will not – tracking down the clues her mother has left behind, some of which surround the lost “sister” killed in the fire. Margaret seemed to believe Fiona wasn’t dead and that she had supernatural powers, and the pursuit of this belief led to her disappearance.
As Josie retraces her mother’s footsteps, she is joined by two other Girls, and each of the “sisters” begin to find out who – and what – she truly is. For decades, the women have begrudged each other over their jealousy for one man’s affection and respect, not recognizing their true power and strength came from being united. This story is not anti-male, but anti-domination, its heart being one of community, depicting the strength of women when they are unified.
Josie’s trek brings her through several states to encounter the ghosts of her past as she uncovers the truth of who she is and where she’s from, seeing for the first time her mother’s love for her and the misguided adoration she held for her “father.” Along the way, she’s confronted with a series of choices to either pursue her past or abandon it for her future, a decision she makes final in the backwoods of Vermont when she’s uncovered a murder – one of many shocking discoveries on her journey – and is faced with confronting the offenders. In Josie’s words:
“If I said something – if I spoke up now – I wouldn’t be able to go back to my old life. I understood that, cleanly and clearly. Choosing between saying something now and letting it go would break my life in half. The freedom to leave and return to my old life, or violence. I made my choice… Saying the words aloud changed me. It reached down into me and altered the shape of who I was. The men were unsurprised; they’d understood the inevitable conclusion of this evening as soon as they had walked in. I’d been the only one in the dark, trying to play along with them.”
While the themes of this book are poignant, the first third of the story develops very slowly and some key early plot elements are set up and executed weakly, although they’re made clear later on. Despite this, Murphy crosses The Handmaid’s Tale with Nancy Drew, creating a dreamlike story with immersive details and vivid descriptions infused with poetic writing. Murphy infuses magazine articles, interviews, and letters to expand the context and enliven the experience, not letting the reader forget the supernatural and science fiction elements, which she craftily keeps from seeming trite – especially in her development of a character born without male DNA.
There’s more to this story than good versus evil or liberation from oppression. Part mystery, part romance, and part coming-of-age story, Murphy creates a world where autonomy is possible, but not without adversity. She reminds us there is always more to a person’s story than we realize, inviting us to question the assumptions we make. It’s a compelling narrative about love, family, and freedom, a must-read for any feminist seeking to be inspired and empowered.
Sara Flannery Murphy
Published June 1, 2021
Paperback published June 14, 2022