By Caroline Lea
HarperCollins Publishers/Harper Perennial; paperback, 448 pages; $19.00; available today, Tuesday, February 14th
Caroline Lea is the author of novels including The Glass Woman (click here for our coverage from September 2019) and The Metal Heart, and her fiction and poetry have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Fish Short Story Competition and various flash fiction prizes. Lea grew up in Jersey in the United Kingdom, and she currently lives in Warwich with her two young children. Her work often explores the pressure of small communities and fractured relationships, as well as the way our history shapes our beliefs and behavior.
Prize Women is Lea's fourth novel, and it is a work of historical fiction that is evocative, engrossing work that focuses on motherhood and survival, and things people will do when they're desperate.
The story begins, in essence when childless millionaire Charles Millar passes away, and his uniquely drafted will has many clauses to it. Lea chronicles how the Toronto Daily Star reported on his death on November 1, 1926, "Being unmarried and having no descendants, Mr. Millar had often claimed that he would leave his considerable fortune to the University of Toronto. However, we at this publication have been told, exclusively, that Mr. Millar's last wishes will bequeath his money to a variety of surprising sources: lifetime tenancy of his vacation home in Jamaica will be granted to three as yet anonymous colleagues, all of whom, we are told, are known to be sworn enemies of one another; Millar's shares in the Catholic O'Keefe brewery will be given to practicing Protestant ministers in Toronto; Millar's shares in the Ontario Jockey Club are to be given to two renowned anti-horse-racing advoates.
"There are a number of other risible bequests, but perhaps the most surprising - and amusing - is that the remainder of Mr. Millar's considerable fortune is to be granted to the Toronto woman who bears the greatest number of children over the next ten years. No other details have yet been released, but we look forward to finding out more about the final outrageous practical joke from Toronto's favorite prankster.
"Mr. Millar will be sadly missed, but this paper suspects his legacy will live on."
The contest that forms to see which woman bears the most children in the ten years after his death is quickly called the Great Stork Derby, and it is unlike anything the world has seen before. The result is a battle between two young mothers for dignity and survival in Toronto in 1926, with the backdrop being the Great Depression.
Lily di Marco is young, pregnant, and trapped in a life of poverty and abuse. When an earthquake ravages her small town, she flees with her son to Toronto, and lands on the doorstep of the glamorous Mae Thebault.
Mae, on the other hand, appears to be living a blessed life, but her secret struggles with her own tortured past and the endless burdens of motherhood threaten to unravel her life. Lily enters her life, and their friendship blossomed until the Great Depression and the contest, with the massive fortune at stake, threatens to separate them.
AUTHOR'S NOTE, By Caroline Lea: As soon as I read about The Great Stork Derby, the "baby race" in the 1930s, which saw women set against each other, competing to have as many babies as possible in order to win a dead lawyer's fortune, I knew I had to write about it. The obvious choice, at first, seemed to be to include the lawyer, Charles Vance Millar, in the story; he was a renowned prankster and his will was full of practical jokes: he left shares in a brewery to a temperance group; he bequeathed shares in a jockey club to an anti-gambling league and he left a house in Jamaica to four lawyers who were known to detest each other, with the condition that they could only inherit the house if they all lived in it at once. But the most controversial clause in his will was to leave the remainder of his fortune to the woman in Toronto who could have the greatest number of babies in the ten years after his death. The court case to arbitrate the winner of the money was worldwide news and Charles Millar was, briefly, a household name.
However, as I began to write, the lawyer seemed less and less interesting and I became fascinated by the stories of the women who had competed for the money: what would their lives have been like? What was their experience, as mothers during the Great Depression, brought into court to defend their right to a stranger's fortune? My research told me that many of the women were forced to prove and justify that their children belonged to them, were made to recount stillbirths and were interrogated about their morals and relationships in a very public forum. The newspapers dubbed the ensuing spectacle "The Great Stork Derby" and although I ended up fictionalizing my main characters, many of the court episodes in the novel are inspired by real events.
I wrote the novel ferociously fast - it took me around ten weeks to produce a first draft and I felt, as I was writing, the urgency of these women's stories and the effect the "baby race" must have had on their families and their relationships. I think that's why Lily and Mae, who are almost inseparable in the early stages of the novel, felt so key to the story I wanted to tell: they are forced to weigh their relationships and desires against the safety of their families. This was something that resonated strongly with me: how many women find themselves having to sacrifice their own needs for the sake of their families? And how many women find themselves judged on a public stage for their decisions around pregnancy and childbirth? The story of the Great Stork Derby may be nearly a century old, but the media arbitration and proprietorial fascination with women's bodies is, sadly, an enduring trope that feels as relevant in 2022 as it was in the midst of the Great Depression.