Book Review: “The Unlocked Path” by Janis Robinson Daly

In 1897 Philadelphia there are limited choices for young women. If one has enough connections they will be invited to be “presented” at the annual Charity Ball, a fast ticket to a society marriage and a comfortable life.

But Eliza Pearson Edwards wants none of it.

Eliza has grown up in a family dominated by women. Independent and strong-willed women. Her father died before she was born. Her grandfather, the family patriarch, is gone as well. Although she has two older brothers, they are now away at college. And something is bothering her: is the secure but boring life of a married society dame what she really wants?

She decides to visit her aunts–all three unmarried and with successful careers–to see if that sort of life would suit her. By the end of the visits Eliza has decided: she wants to be a doctor, attending the Woman’s Medical College her grandfather helped to establish.

After months of preparation and studying, Eliza sits for the entrance exam and is at last accepted to medical school. As one might imagine, she has to hurdle not only the demands of a medical education but the prejudices and misogeny of the male-dominated medical community. She develops deep and enduring friendships with some of her classmates and together they stay strong, independent, and focused on breaking the barriers society has imposted. When she at last attains her medical degree, she has settled on a specialty: obstetrics. Specifically, she wants to help educate women who come from impoverished backgrounds–who may be trapped in and endless loop of pregnancies and births, some live and some stillbirths.

Eliza’s story weaves through the events of the day: World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the suffragist movement. She becomes a champion for birth control, educating women of child-bearing age and fighting the strict prohibitions of the Catholic church. She is engaged to be married, nearly loses her fiance to the sinking Titanic, then loses him anyway when he decides to stay in Ireland rather than return to her. When she finally marries, it is more for the desire to bear children while she still has time.

At the end of the novel, Eliza and a former classmate open their own clinic, determined to serve the women of the community, and the door is left open for what is to come: the second installment of Eliza’s life.

I’ve been privy to Eliza’s story during its evolution from early drafts to published novel. Ms. Daly has worked long and hard to produce a chronicle of the female spirit that refuses to be defeated. I look forward to reading early drafts of her next novel and its eventual release.

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