"She takes her time, fingering the icy water until her hand is so cold it is practically numb. Whore! She slams the lid, tosses her nickel on the counter. Bastard! She turns away and walks back toward the hills."

In a dramatic, atmospheric memoir that intertwines the twin realities of searching for one’s birth mother today and of bearing the stigma of “unwed mother” in an earlier era. When freelance writer Barnes learned, at age 65, that she had been adopted, she began a tortuous trek to find out more. She knew her mother was named Pauline Miller; by following the thin trail of name and birthplace, she connected many small clues about her origins. Pauline was a person of indomitable spirit, it seems, a poor farmer’s daughter who was impregnated by a corrupt and overbearing employer, gave birth to Peggy (whom she grandly named MariLouise Janelle) in an institution for “sinners” like herself and gave the child up because of the social disgrace of being an unmarried mother. Yet she managed later to marry, move far away, and have legitimate children. Pauline’s few short letters to her sister comprise most of Peggy’s legacy. In the process of her quest, Peggy confronts her own failings as a mother and her latent alcoholism, a genetic marker possibly inherited from her birth father.

Well written, Barnes’ investigations are interspersed with speculation about Pauline’s experiences. Though the transitions can at times be somewhat confusing, two salient points are made: When Barnes was born, unwed mothers were regarded as weak, sick, and evil (while illegitimate fathers were not even scolded); and, adopted children will seek knowledge about their parents to help them understand themselves better. Barnes didn’t get all the answers she hoped for, but reached sufficient closure to create this absorbing record. A slice of social history, a woman’s voyage of discovery, the memoir blends factual evidence with powerful emotional undertones.

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