Through a book newsletter to which I subscribe, I received an opportunity to read the first three chapters of Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris. Those first three chapters immediately captured my interest and I purchased the e-book as soon as it became available. Once I started reading, I could not put the book down and finished it within the day.
McMorris saw a picture from 1948 of a pregnant woman standing on the steps of an apartment with her four children on the steps below. The mother has turned so that her face is hidden. A sign in front of the children reads: 4 Children For Sale; inquire within. The photo was taken in Chicago and first appeared in The Vidette-Messenger of Valparaiso, Indiana, 5 August 1948. Some controversy over the photo ensued with family members saying the photo was staged. However, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Chalifoux did eventually sell all four children and the baby Mrs. Chalifoux was carrying. Read the whole story by following this link: https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/4-children-sale-1948/.
Kristina McMorris reflected on the photo and began forming a story of her own which she set in 1931 during the Great Depression in Philadelphia. Sold on a Monday opens with Ellis Reed, a newspaper reporter for the Philadelphia Examiner in rural Laurel Township on an assignment to take pictures at a quilt show. Still in the countryside, Reed sees a ramshackle farm house with two tow-headed boys playing on the porch. However, the sign on the porch, 2 CHILDREN FOR SALE, catches his eye.
Reed snaps the picture, but not for the newspaper. He often photographs scenes he sees along with the photos he takes for the stories he must write. Reed is waiting for his big break in journalism to get away from the women’s news to which he has been assigned. Reed has no intention of writing a story about the boys or the sign, but he develops the photo along with his assignment photos in the newspaper darkroom and leaves it hanging to dry.
Most likely, nothing would have come of the photograph of the two boys except that Lily Palmer, secretary to the chief, goes into the developing room to retrieve photos for a story. Lily has seen Reed’s personal photographs before, but the picture of the two boys with the For-Sale sign so prominent in the picture catches at her heart. Impulsively, she takes the picture from the drying line and includes it with the ones she has come to find.
Lily’s action of giving the chief the picture of the two boys sets the story in motion. Neither Lily Palmer nor Ellis Reed know at this point how the photograph will push both of them into saving two other children. As readers may imagine, the chief is taken with the photo of the two boys and tells Reed to write a story about it.
Reed is reluctant because he did not intend to use the photo in the newspaper in the first place and he does not wish to exploit the family. Still, he needs a story to break out of the society news and into the news he has dreamed of writing. Reed persuades the chief that “this picture’s about more than one family…. After all, there’s folks hurting everywhere. The bigger story is why this stuff’s still happening. Other than the crash, that is.”
Surprisingly, the chief agrees that Reed can research the bigger story. At first, Reed tries to tie problems to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. As Reed explains to Lily when she asks how the story is going, “look, a bunch of DC lawmakers — they swore up and down that tariff was going to be great for all Americans. Plumb out of solutions? Tax ‘em.” Lily realizes that angle is not going to make a good story.
Lily then asks Reed what the picture means to him. Both Reed and Lily have their own reasons for feeling strongly about the two boys. Lily’s question sparks a new take on the story, turning it into a much more personal angle. Reed tells Lily, “As I drove off, I just kept thinking about those boys. They didn’t ask for the bum score they’re getting, but somehow they’ll make do.”
Because of Lily’s question, Reed begins writing the story from the “smallest amount of hope.” The chief accepts the story and it is going to print when disaster strikes. The chief tells Reed that an accident in the printing has ruined the negative of the photo and the story itself. Reed has the story, so he can resubmit it, but the negative of the photo is ruined.
In a last-ditch effort to recreate the photo in time for the evening paper, Reed returns to Laurel Township where he finds the boys’ house abandoned. He picks up the sign 2 Children For Sale and turns it over and over in his hands. His story is now useless without the photo.
Then he meets Ruby, eight-years-old, and her five-year-old brother Calvin who live next door to the abandoned house. Ruby is selling bunches of dandelions for a penny each. In a moment of desperation, Reed wonders if he can recreate the photo using Ruby and Calvin, so he asks Geraldine Dillard, their mother, if he can photograph the children on the porch behind the sign. Finally, she agrees when Reed gives her the last two dollars he has in his pocket.
Geraldine Dillard is clearly ill and at her wit’s end. Her husband has died of an infection, leaving her to find a way to feed and care for herself and her two children. Reed’s two dollars will make a few day’s difference for the family. Reed takes several photos of the children and then snaps one last picture with Geraldine turning to go back into the house, so the picture shows the three of them with Geraldine’s face turned away from the camera.
That becomes the picture the chief attaches to the story. Reed, Lily, and the chief are all surprised when the story becomes the talk of the city and other newspapers pick it up so it is run in a wide variety of cities. Reed is on his way to achieving the success he has dreamed of as a reporter.
In fact, money, clothing, and food for the family begin to pour into the office of the Philadelphia Examiner. Reed makes a number of midnight trips to leave the goods on the family’s porch.
Because of his success, Reed is offered a job in New York with the Tribune. The job will mean more prestige, greater stories, and more money. Reed regrets leaving Lily, but their relationship has been nothing more than friendship.
In New York, Reed struggles to find his place. He is mostly doing grunt work until he overhears some thugs talking in a bar one evening. One man says, “We bloody need to do somethin’…. We look like a bunch of dolts and killers, the lot of us. The boss is right. People see us as alley rats, and we’ll never get the respect we deserve.”
Ellis forms a plan as he listens to the talk from the next booth. Before he can change his mind, he tells the men, “I’ve got a proposal. A fairly easy way to solve your problem.” Reed proposes that the men do charitable work and he would write up the story. In exchange, Ellis “receives a solid tip about a congressman who had the gall to skim off veterans’ benefits.” The stories appear a week apart, so there is no connection between the two.
Other tips come Reed’s way, and he becomes well-known as a reporter. At this point, readers may well become dissatisfied with Reed and his behavior. He is drinking too much and acting like a swell.
Then a not-so-chance re-encounter with Lily who has brought more donations the Dillard family received in Philadelphia changes Reed’s life as well as Lily’s. Reed takes the donations to Laurel Township to the Dillards only to discover the house is empty. Reed finds Geraldine Dillard has sold Ruby and Calvin and has gone to a sanitorium for TB patients.
At this point, Lily and Ellis want to know where the children are and if they are safe, but, ultimately, they wish to reunite the mother and children if possible. Reed’s investigative skills become useful. Lily, herself an aspiring columnist, also seeks answers and is unwilling to give up. Lily and Ellis form an investigative pair regardless of the consequences. Both Lily and Ellis have their own reasons for wishing to find the children and reunite them with the mother.
Sold on a Monday becomes a breathless search for the children and their mother. In the search, Ellis, in particular, encounters dangerous criminals. However, Lily and Ellis both receive help from unlikely people.
After reading the first three chapters online, I was eager to read Sold on a Monday. The story certainly kept me reading so that I could discover the truth about the children. The story shows some unsavory sides to the adoption of orphans in the 1930s because instead of true adoption, the children are being sold, often as workers and treated poorly.
Kristina McMorris has created a memorable and remarkable story. McMorris has received a number of awards for her previous novels. I have no doubt that Sold on a Monday will also receive recognition.
Portland Today hosts interview Christina McMorris to learn about Sold on a Monday: https://www.kgw.com/video/entertainment/television/programs/portland-today/nyt-bestseller-kristina-mcmorris-on-new-book/283-8236895. Also, visit Kristina McMorris’ Web site: http://KristinaMcMorris.com.