Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
Crown Publishing Group
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-0-4514-9933-2, 400 pgs., $27
July 23, 2019
Cate has just moved to Arlington for a new job in the University Collections department of the local campus of the University of Texas when during a morning run, she stumbles across a historical marker for the site of Berachah Home and Cemetery. Her new job allows her to research the residents of the Berachah Home, and she finds their stories resonate powerfully with her own past.
Lizzie and her daughter, Docia, are rescued from a Tyler jail in 1904 by two women from the Berachah Industrial Home for the Redemption of Erring Girls in Arlington. Lizzie has been expelled from her home for “seducing” (read “being raped by”) a family member. With no education and no skills, she earns her keep cooking at the county prison farm, where she becomes the victim of what we now call sexual harassment and sex trafficking (read “rape”).
Mattie and her son, Cap, are living hand-to-mouth in Fort Worth after her husband takes off to make his fortune in the Colorado mines, and they never hear from him again. Mattie has just turned her first trick to pay the rent when Cap falls seriously ill. Mattie stumbles across a pamphlet about the Berachah Home, and she sets out seeking asylum.
Home for Erring and Outcast Girls is the second novel from Julie Kibler, following her 2013 bestselling debut, Calling Me Home. Kibler’s new book is mostly historical fiction, so it seems odd to call it “timely,” but it is. Artfully woven of the ills currently roiling our country, resonating in the era of #MeToo and Jeffrey Epstein and the list is too long to name them all, the issues of Home for Erring and Outcast Girls are age-old. Powerful men protect other powerful men, often with the collusion of wives, and countless women and girls are collateral damage.
Kibler’s research is impeccable, the fruit of years of examining everything she could find on the historical Berachah Industrial Home in Arlington, which was operational from 1903 to 1935. The home served approximately three thousand girls and women, along with their children. The grounds (the chapel’s foundation and a cemetery remain) were purchased by the University of Texas at Arlington; the archives are housed at UTA’s Special Collections department.
The pace is quick and steady; action moves fluidly back and forth between the present and the early twentieth century. Kibler is skilled at foreshadowing and organically solving the mysteries, only marred by melodrama in a fleeting few instances. She writes gripping, heart-pounding scenes, then lulls you into a tender scene, which will tug your heartstrings out and tie them into knots. The experience is painful but rewarding.
Eve, the cause of every ill, her descendants the second sex, the weaker vessel, are held responsible, not only for their own behavior but for enforcing the morals of, and controlling the actions of, men. The Berachah Home was founded by and run by a Christian sect, and all of Kibler’s main characters wrestle with faith. Mattie thinks God is not for people like her. Cate says, “I have an understanding with God. I won’t judge him by the people who claim to represent him if he won’t judge me for keeping my distance.” Kibler dips a toe into theological debate, wondering why a religion that claims to follow Jesus wants instead to adhere to the writings of Paul. Of course they blamed themselves. We still do.
Many of the characters in Kibler’s novel were inspired by the people who lived at Berachah. One of the many joys is the depth of these characters, richly drawn and quite fully human. Thankfully, there are no saints among these damaged souls—there but for the grace of pick-your-deity (or whatever moves your universe). These fallen women form families of choice and friendships of sisterhood while mothering each other, attempting a “reciprocity of trust,” which is necessary but so difficult.
Kibler offers a hopeful but realistic conclusion with a measure of peace in which there’s work still to do. Home for Erring and Outcast Girls deserves to be addressed as an accessible and profound work on the ill treatment of women and girls in this society. Of course, Amazon’s metadata is laughably reductive, assigning the novel to “Mothers & Children Fiction” and “Women's Friendship Fiction.” When will work about the female experience finally be considered—simply—human?
Julie Kibler is the author of Home for Erring and Outcast Girls and the bestselling Calling Me Home, which was an IndieNext List pick, Target Club Pick, and Ladies’ Home Journal Book Club Pick, published in fifteen languages. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism and a master’s degree in library science. She lives with her family, including four rescued dogs and cats, in Texas.
Julie grew up in various towns in Kentucky, New Mexico, and Colorado, then moved to Texas to attend college and stayed because even the strangers were friendly. Aside from writing, she enjoys reading, traveling, indie films, BBC and quirky American television series, music, amateur photography, and splitting chocolaty desserts with her husband, an engineer who doesn’t understand writers, but understands chocolate.