In 1877, the widowed Sarah Bell writes to the New York Children’s Aid Society to explain that poverty has driven her to leave her daughter Lily May in its care. Mr Bassett writes to the same office that he and his wife would like to adopt a little girl. They are given Lily May and change the baby’s name to Mabel.

Over the years, Sarah keeps writing to ask for news of her child; when she remarries she begs to have her daughter back. With evident alarm, the Bassetts tell of the good care they have given the girl; they love her and will not relinquish her. Lily/Mabel has no idea that she is adopted and will never be told.


An epistolic story told through twenty years of letters from the bereaved mother and the adoptive father to the same institutional authority. The Children’s Aid letters do not appear although the reader can surmise what they might have said.

The mother grieves that poverty should not have deprived her of her daughter nor should it have deprived her daughter of knowing her true identity. The adoptive parents fret that revealing the secret of adoption will cause them to lose the child they love.

Another exercise in historical fiction inspired by records of a true case. This story reveals the adoption process of the past and it invites readers to contemplate the nature and responsibilities of parenthood as organized through social organizations.


Based on notes about a true case in the ledgers of the New York Children's Aid Society and correspondence between a real birth mother and adoptive parents. The future life of the grown child is tracked through the census records, but we do not know if she ever discovered (or even imagined) the secret of her adoption.

Primary Source




Place Published




Page Count