Lynnie, the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, is developmentally disabled; her parents institutionalized her when she was a young child at the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. Although she remembers a fair bit about her home life with her biological family, her mental limitations prevent her from truly understanding the concepts of “forever” and “since I was a little child”; there is really only now, today and the nebulous passage of the seasons.
Homan, Lynnie’s friend and supporter, is not only profoundly deaf but….drumroll, please…black. In 1968, that last alone would suffice to keep the two apart to the best of society’s capabilities. The fact that the institution in which they’re both “living” strongly discourages contact between “residents” of opposite genders doesn’t help. (Contact between the residents and the staff, well, that’s another matter.)
Martha is a retired schoolteacher, now widowed after a marriage of decades and an equally long career. She and her husband Earl had one child, which died, though Martha found some solace and fulfillment in the children who came and went through her classroom over all those years. Fortunately, she has remained in contact with many of her previous students…
…which stands her in good stead when Homan and Lynnie’s flight land them, and Lynnie’s baby, on her doorstep one dark and stormy night. Officials from the school show up close on the trio’s heels, but reclaim only Lynnie; Homan has already fled, and they do not know that Lynnie’s given birth. Martha is left with a newborn infant, knowing nothing of its parents or the circumstances under which they fled; being a good and honorable (and lonely) woman, she acknowledges Lynnie’s unspoken request and cares for the child as if it were genuinely her own flesh and blood. She calls upon her old students for assistance. One has become a hotelkeeper and allows Martha to stay with his family as they fix their newly purchased facility. Another is an artist with a summer home on Cape Cod, in which Martha stays one winter. And so on.
I’ll leave out the intervening thirty years except to mention that yes: it does have a more or less happy ending—I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to read The Story of Beautiful Girl for themselves—I’ll just add that I’m glad there were exposes of the institutions in which these people lived, not to mention legislation that encouraged communities to incorporate the people in them out into the community. Not only is it the more humane thing to do—who doesn’t want to be a self-supporting, independent person to the best of their abilities?—but it’s also cheaper. Tax-paying citizens rather than a tax burden is the way to go.
Keep in mind that the novel is as much about the daughter, left with the retired schoolteacher, as it is about the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, Lynnie, and her best friend, Homan. The author’s choice to skip between the three primary characters’ viewpoints fragmented the story a bit, and her additional decision to skip several years between chapters left gaps in the sequence of events. Overall, though, it’s a powerful argument for mainstreaming people such as Lynnie to the best of their abilities, rather than warehousing them or more life-threatening forms of abandonment.