Cruelty, and rationalizations for it, have been with us throughout history and seem to have no boundaries. Even in the Old Testament, we find instances of torture and enslavement. God Himself warns His people against throwing their children into the fire as sacrificial offerings to false deities. The passage of time has done little to diminish human savagery, as today’s news headlines often testify.
Genevieve Graham explores one such outrage in The Forgotten Home Child. Through the experiences of three principal characters, she tells the story of the British Home Children of the 1930s: London street urchins shipped to Canada as a cheap labor force. Thinking they are headed for a better life, the youngsters find themselves worse off than before, starved, worked mercilessly, housed in barns or sheds, routinely beaten, sometimes raped.
Descendants of African slaves know this story all too well. In this case, the children are whites, torn from their families by adverse circumstances. Jack and Mary, a brother and sister, form a bond with Winny, an Irish orphan recruited into their London street gang. With no place to call home, Winny says to Jack, “I feel like I’m home when I’m with you and Mary.” It is this relationship that keeps their hopes alive, even when they are separated.
After a brief respite in an orphanage, all three find themselves in Canada, to be legally enslaved on farms or workhouses until they reach adulthood. Some in their group adapt and survive; others do not. Most suffer exploitation at the hands of cruel masters, their hearts hardened by their own bleak lives.
Anyone familiar with the works of Charles Dickens will recognize the similarities. Graham dramatizes the true story of a structured social program whose original good intentions backfired, creating a class of “home children,” a stigma so shameful that its members kept their backgrounds secret from their own offspring.
Not all of Graham’s characters succumb to tragic fates. In fact, while reading this book I occasionally suspected her of contriving a series of happy endings. The actual outcome is more complicated. Graham has done her homework, as she documents in a separate section.
Despite its subject matter, the novel minimizes violent narration. It contains only one non-explicit sexual scene and a few mild expletives.