Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Drawing on a dark, little known chapter in Canadian history, Genevieve Graham paints a searing portrait of childhood shattered by isolation, injustice and brutality.
Through meticulous research, Graham uncovers alarming facts shining a light on the lives of British Home Children—over 120,000 destitute children between the ages of three and eighteen taken from Britain’s streets and orphanages from the years 1869 to 1948 and brought to Canada to toil as indentured servants, mostly as farm labourers and domestics. This child migration scheme was thought to provide a better life but there was little to no monitoring or checking up on the children.
“Everything you read about in The Forgotten Home Child happened to the actual Home Children…..a large percentage of the girls like Mary suffered sexual abuse and rape. Many boys were beaten to death, like Quinn and others committed suicide…..froze to death…..full of pitchfork holes.” (p346, 347)
Readers will instantly become engrossed in the lives of her main characters: tiny, brave Winny, gentle Mary and rebellious Jack (a natural leader and protector).
Fifteen-year-old Winny runs away from an abusive step-father. Living on the streets of London she’s taken in by Mary and her older brother Jack where she learns to beg for and steal food. Captured by the police, the girls fare better in Dr. Barnardo’s Barkingside Girls’ Village, a local home for orphans and forgotten children. Here they have warm beds, regular meals, are taught to read, sew, cook and clean. Their bond goes beyond friendship to one of family. The theme of home and family is a recurring one in the novel.
Separated from her brother Jack for several years, they are reunited on the Liverpool dock being shipped out to Halifax. Once in Canada, they are separated again - the girls sent by train to Peterborough and the boys to London to work on remote farms. It is the Depression and these children offer cheap labour at $3.00 for an application fee. Winny, a city girl learns to milk cows and plant crops while barely surviving on scraps and sleeping in a shed with the sheep. “She realized the bleakest thing about her life was the loneliness.” (p 96)
Only Winny’s resilience keeps her story from becoming too distressing. Eventually allowed to attend school in the winter, she reconnects with her friend Charlotte who ignores Winny until meeting secretly after school; such is the stigma and shame of being a Home Child.
About seventy-five percent of Home Children suffered neglect (malnourished, froze to death) and abuse (whipping). Jack’s harrowing life reflects the horrible beatings some of the boys endured. Charlotte represents the lucky ones who were adopted into loving homes. These are not mere statistics but flesh and blood people Graham has created that gain our support and sympathy.
Despite the inhumane treatment, Jack and brothers Edward and Cecil enlist in World War II. Jack and Winny, now a nurse, reunite as she tends him in hospital. The novel takes on a different tone at this point, yet their early years continue to haunt them. “Life was hard and he’d become just as hard in order to survive it…..he reached for the possibility of happiness.” (p253, 254)
Despite finding love, Jack can’t escape his past. He is bitter, filled with anger and inferiority despite his success as a mechanic. The most common feeling mentioned among Home Children is bitterness.
Graham has achieved her purpose bringing public awareness to this shameful part of our history. Graham thanks Lori in her acknowledgements and Lori Oschefski, founder of British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association writes:
“The Forgotten Home Child is a poignant, edgy and skillfully written portrayal of a Home Child’s experience that typified so many. The absence of any sugar-coating makes this story come to life and brings a level of reality that is often lacking – an emotional journey well worth reading.”
The Forgotten Home Child is published by Simon & Schuster Canada.