In Nell Lillington’s small Midwestern town of the 1870s, marriage is the obvious fate of a young woman of some social standing. Yet Nell is determined to elude the duties and restrictions of matrimony. So when she finds herself pregnant at the age of 17, she refuses to divulge the name of the father and even her childhood friend Martin is kept in the dark.
Nell’s stepfather Hiram sends Nell to live at the Poor Farm of which he is a governor, to await the day when her baby can be discreetly adopted. Nell is ready to go along with Hiram’s plans until an unused padded cell is opened and two small bodies fall out.
Nell is the only resident of the Poor Farm who is convinced that the unwed mother and her baby were murdered, and the incident prompts her to rethink her decision to abandon her own child to her fate. But the revelations to which her questions lead make her realize that even if she manages to escape the Poor Farm with her baby, she may have no safe place to run to.
Author: Jane Steen
Title: The House of Closed Doors
Series: House of Closed Doors #1
Published 6/25/2012 by Aspidistra Press
Seventeen year old Nell Lillington finds herself pregnant after an innocent flirtation is allowed, by her naiveté, to go too far. In the 1870s, the only respectable choice she has is to name the father and be promptly wed… but marriage is the last thing Nell wants for her life. She manages to disguise her condition for a while, but her secret is inevitably discovered and she is brought before her mother and stepfather (a man with political aspirations in their small town) and told she must name the man responsible and marry him at once. When Nell refuses, they must come up with a plan to keep her shameful fall from grace hidden, and quickly. Nell is hidden away from visitors under the guise of a lingering illness, unable to see her dear friend, Martin, or anyone else. Her stepfather, Hiram, eventually presents Nell with a choice: she will either be sent to the distant and isolated Prairie Haven Poor Farm, where she will give birth to her illegitimate child secretly and give it up for adoption, or, she can name the father and marry him.
Still unwilling to marry, and wanting to be able to return to her ailing mother after the child has been born, Nell agrees to go to the Poor Farm. Once there, Nell earns her keep by working as a seamstress. She becomes friends with Mrs. Lombardi, the matron, and Tess, one of the “inmates”, as they called, living on the farm. A few months later, in the midst of a blizzard, Nell gives birth to her daughter, Sarah. Her days are spent sewing and caring for Sarah, whom she quickly learns to love, and wants to keep.
The sameness of her days is shattered with the discovery of the corpse of a former inmate, still holding her dead baby in her arms. Everyone insists the troubled young woman must have shut herself up in a padded room of the long-unused wing of the house, staying until both she and her child froze to death, but Nell isn’t at all convinced that’s what happened. She believes someone forced the poor woman into that room, and left them there to die. But why would someone have cause to murder a young woman and her baby? Was it the unknown father, perhaps? Nell wanted answers, but more than that, she needed to find a way to escape the farm with her precious daughter, before her stepfather forced her to give baby Sarah away. But the cost of those answers is far more than Nell ever imagined it could be.
I enjoyed reading this book very much, but the one disappointment I had was that the ending felt a bit… unfinished. I’m hoping it’s because a sequel is in the works, because I would dearly love to know what happens next. As a stand-alone, it’s still a good story, and worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction/mysteries. After all, it certainly isn’t the first book I’ve read that ended too soon for my liking. (But I’m still going to hold out hope that there will be more of Nell’s story to be read in the future!)