Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Montreal writer April Ford has a disturbing mind, no question about that. And The Poor Children is only too apt a title for this, her first short story collection. Each of these stories is about a child or children in distressing circumstances, effectively confined, whether it is a state institution, a remote town, an oppressive cult, poverty, or simply neglectful or abusive parents. In manuscript this book won the Grand Prize for Fiction at the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project awards. No wonder.
The stories themselves are varied and definitely not upbeat: An officer in a children’s correctional facility contemplates her imminent motherhood while dealing with underage criminals. A girl whose mother has abandoned her becomes obsessed with her father’s layabout friend. A brother wants his sadistic adoptive brother to help him give a kitten to their sexually abused sister. A thirteen-year-old girl falls in love with an older boy who claims he is a werewolf. A pyromaniac teenager is sent from Montreal to a correctional facility in rural Alberta. A pair of young orphans are employed by their adoptive mother to pretend they are ghosts. In the final, 2016 Pushcart Prize-winning story, a team of child protection officers tries to free girls from an abusive cult, where the leader impregnates young female acolytes, thereby passing on a destructive gene.
Yet there are common themes. These are tales of children’s confusion, struggle, and awakening to themselves as they are rushed harshly into the adult world. They cling to what they know, but that knowledge of course comes only from their deprived existence. They cannot step back and view themselves with any real perspective. They have to just try to sort things out as best they can. Ford examines their plight—trapped in a place—town, institution, family—that does not really want them.
Parents get short shrift from Ford. They are either absent, inept, or cruel. Caregivers fare little better. And the adults who aren’t abusive are conflicted about their lives, their jobs, their responsibilities to the children. The kids themselves are not perfect by any means. They are comfortable with cruelty, irresponsible, insensitive, and destructive.
Ford’s imagination conjures up much that is horrific, and it is paired with a pointed eye for detail. The scenes inside correctional facilities are particularly haunting. The children’s voices resonate with the anxiety and confusion of youth, of what it is to be young and at the mercy of the caprices of the world.
This award-winning volume displays the artistry of a powerful, inventive writer. With a compelling voice, visceral style, and a facility for getting into the damaged psyches of her characters, Ford is a serious new Canadian literary talent.
The Poor Children is published by the Santa Fe Writer's Project.