Sheila O’Connor, Brooklyn born and convent educated, leaves the East Coast for her freshman year at college at Southern Methodist University. Her three suite mates are familiar with this new alien world, but none of them is prepared for the challenges Shelia will face. Her secrets will affect all of them before the year is out and continue to echo as the women meet for a 30th reunion.
Coming of Age in the 1950s
They called us the “Silent Generation.”
Our men followed the Greatest Generation into another bloody war after only five years of peace; the Korean War. Remember it? Nearly as many of us died there as in Vietnam, the Baby Boomers’ war.
Our women bridged a culture our mothers had discovered—going to college, but returning home to hang a framed diploma in the family kitchen. We began life expecting to live the same lives until the world changed around us, and many of us chose to change with it.
Virgin Hall is a book about four women coming of age in the 1950s. The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces the reader not only to the characters, but to the times. Clothes, sorority rush, boys, and a great date were all priorities for “co-eds” of the day. Sheila, the heroine, a sheltered girl from Brooklyn, is lost at first in the flamboyant culture of the Southwest. As her three suitemates help her adjust, the women establish lifelong friendships.
The second part of the novel reveals the very real life situation Sheila faces. She is an incest victim and experiences a pregnancy from a rape, even as the pace of campus life goes on around her. Shelia is helped through her trauma by the other women and by the young man she considers her true love.
Part three takes place thirty years later, at an impromptu reunion of the four college suitemates. They have all undergone changes in the intervening years, and answers to many questions raised in the first two parts come to light as they catch up on one another’s lives. America and the three women changed profoundly in the intervening years—all of them know that for every gain they made, a price was paid.
Life in Different Times
At heart, Virgin Hall is a book about what the 1950s were like and all the rigid hypocrisy and misplaced priorities of the times. We were the last generation to reflect the mores, habits, attitudes, and cultural values that dominated American life over the previous century. Virgin Hall is also is the story of a kinder era, when the individual felt a duty to society at large, values that seemed to die off after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
The good went with the bad for those of us living through the profound social changes of the times. I was proud to be a part of the civil rights movement, proud to be active in politics trying to elect progressive leaders, and proud to follow John and Robert Kennedy into what we hoped would be a new era. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to and for many of us.
We had grown up in the days of lynchings, gentlemen’s agreements limiting what Jews could do, and suspicion of Roman Catholics that bordered on hatred. The only choice a woman had with an unwanted pregnancy was a coat hanger or a backroom, illegal abortion. No one mourned the passing of these societal defects.
Virgin Hall was inspired by my experiences and the women who lived on the third floor of the freshman dormitory Virginia Hall, at Southern Methodist University in the early 1950s. Naturally the boys called it Virgin Hall.
It is important to say this is not a roman à clef. None of these things happened to any of us. I have borrowed certain characteristics and details of background to create a pastiche of characters for the book. Purists of the time will recognize that I have taken liberties with the details of sorority rush and that Virginia Hall did not have suites like the other dorms. Other than that, I have stayed close to the truth of the time.