A real-life Maryland horror finds its place in fiction

Julianna Baggott's newest novel is set partly at the Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children — a name so unapologetically pejorative, so Dickensian in its evocation of ragamuffins starving on watered-down gruel, that the hyper-imaginative author must surely have made it up.

"It's a real place," the 45-year-old Loyola University Maryland graduate and author of more than 20 books says over the phone, and then corrects the verb tense. "It was a real place. It was located in the Owings Mills area."


Baggott first heard of the institution in a footnote to a history she was reading of Towson's Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital. In 2000, she visited the former School for Feeble Minded Children — which by then had been renamed the Rosewood Center and was treating adult patients — and read the 1911 biennial report.

She knew then that she'd mine that history in her novel-in-progress, "Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book Of Wonders," which was published Tuesday.


"It was a pretty terrifying document," Baggott says.

"I had assumed I would be looking at photographs of children who had Down syndrome or who were disabled in some way. But the children I was looking at appeared to be quite normal and healthy. Maybe they had one small deformity."

During the Depression, she said, children were left at the institution because their parents no longer could afford to feed them. But few eventually resumed normal lives.

"Even if nothing was wrong with them, the children were put into one of three categories," Baggott says, "morons, idiots or imbeciles. They were considered to be a possible criminal element and so shouldn't be reintroduced into society. There also was enforced sterilization."


Rosewood was closed by the state in 2009.

"Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders," which Baggott describes as her "secret literary" novel, was 19 years in the making. It alternates between the voices of four women from three generations: Harriet, who begins life at the institution but grows up to become a famous, reclusive writer; her daughter, Eleanor, who channels her feelings of deprivation into a fierce over-protectiveness; and Eleanor's two grown daughters, the rebellious Ruthie and the odd, outwardly fragile Tilton.

The novel weaves together familiar local sites and bits of Maryland history, notably the 1963 crash of Pan Am Flight 214 near Elkton — though in the novel, the disaster occurs about 10 years earlier than it did in real life.

Baggott grew up in Delaware, just east of the Maryland state line. Though she spent only four years in Baltimore, the city made a deep impression on her. She graduated from what is now Loyola University Maryland in 1991 and, three years later, received her master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Many of the novels that she writes under her name, as well as the noms de plume of Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode, are set in Baltimore.

"Baltimore is such a great town to write about because of its industrial roots," she says.

"It has a lot of literary grit to it. Writing about New York would be impossible, because so much of it is known. There's something about Baltimore that's very iconic for me, and it still has so many parts that haven't been touched. As a writer, you can make it your own."

Baggott is one of those writers who seems as much at home in popular culture as she does in the circles of the rarefied elite. Not surprisingly, she has fans in both worlds.

Her first novel, "Girl Talk," which came out in 2001, was a national best-seller. She has also published children's books, a young adult dystopian trilogy being considered for a television adaptation, and three volumes of poetry. She contributes essays to The New York Times and even has written a book about baseball, the novel "The Prince of Fenway Park," which was released in 2009.

Along the way, her prose has picked up plaudits from the likes of Pulitzer Prize winners Elizabeth Strout and Robert Olen Butler, and Man Booker Prize finalist Joshua Ferris. While it's not uncommon for writers to praise other writers, the tone of some of the blurbs is unusually heartfelt.

For example, Butler describes "Pure," the first novel in Baggott's dystopian trilogy, as "not just the most extraordinary coming-of-age novel I've ever read," but also "a beautiful and savage metaphorical assessment of how all of us live in this present age."

That's not to say that everything came easily for Baggott. "Harriet Wolf" took nearly two decades to write because Baggott suffered a crisis of confidence when her third novel received a particularly caustic review. "Madam" was based on the life of Baggott's grandmother, who grew up in a brothel. At the time, it was her most ambitious novel.

"That harsh review really rattled me as a writer," she says, and compared the effect on her to the problem that bedeviled former major-league catcher Mackey Sasser.

"When Mackey had too much time before a throw, he would double-clutch," she says. "He'd overthink, and he wouldn't be able to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Other times, he'd be fine.

"Well, all that a writer has is time, so I started double-clutching."

Eventually, Baggott devised a work-around by relying on an elaborate mental ruse.

"I found all these ways to hide from myself the fact that I was still writing," she says.

"It was OK to write poetry because I hadn't trained as a poet. I started to write for kids, and I started writing under pen names. I create these areas where I'm not an authority, so I can just play around and write.

"'Harriet Wolf' is really me coming back and staking my literary claim. If I go down in flames, that's fine. I'm a little tougher now."

Given Baggott's prolific output, it's tempting to think that she writes day and night. In reality, she teaches creative writing full time at both the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She and her husband, the writer David G.W. Scott, have four children ages 20, 18, 15 and 8.

Early in her career, she feared that the demands of family life would diminish her output.

The breakthrough came when she realized that days spent changing diapers and doling out bowls of cereal wasn't depriving her of writing time. It was depriving her of time for reflection.

"My kids had taken my musing time over, and I had to reclaim it," she says.

"When I was chopping vegetables or taking a shower, I started asking myself what my characters wanted and what they feared. I would ask myself, 'What would happen if her kimono caught fire?' and start to play out the scenes visually.

"By the time I got to my writing desk, I was already four drafts into the scene. My process got more portable, and my writing got more visual. I think of it as efficient creativity."


About the book


"Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders: A Novel" was released Tuesday by Little, Brown and Co. $26; 336 pages.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun