Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham: A Heartbreaking Look at a Little-Known Aspect of Canadian History

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham
Published: March 3rd, 2020
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Genre: Historical fiction
# of pages: 350
My rating: 5 stars
Acquired this book from the publisher in exchange for honest consideration
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Buy now: Amazon Canada || Amazon US || Indigo 


At ninety-seven years old, Winnifred Ellis knows she doesn’t have much time left, and it is almost a relief to realize that once she is gone, the truth about her shameful past will die with her. But when her great-grandson Jamie, the spitting image of her dear late husband, asks about his family tree, Winnifred can’t lie any longer, even if it means breaking a promise she made so long ago...


Fifteen-year-old Winny has never known a real home. After running away from an abusive stepfather, she falls in with Mary, Jack, and their ragtag group of friends roaming the streets of Liverpool. When the children are caught stealing food, Winny and Mary are left in Dr. Barnardo’s Barkingside Home for Girls, a local home for orphans and forgotten children found in the city’s slums. At Barkingside, Winny learns she will soon join other boys and girls in a faraway place called Canada, where families and better lives await them.

But Winny’s hopes are dashed when she is separated from her friends and sent to live with a family that has no use for another daughter. Instead, they have paid for an indentured servant to work on their farm. Faced with this harsh new reality, Winny clings to the belief that she will someday find her friends again.

Inspired by true events, The Forgotten Home Child is a moving and heartbreaking novel about place, belonging, and family—the one we make for ourselves and its enduring power to draw us home.

There are two things I know I can always count on with a Genevieve Graham book: I’ll learn about an aspect of Canadian history that I previously knew little to nothing about, and I’ll have my heart broken several times before having it stitched back together. In the past, I’ve learned about the Halifax Explosion, the Acadian Expulsion (which I knew a bit - but not much - about since it’s part of my family’s history), the Yukon Gold Rush, and the beginnings of the RCMP. In The Forgotten Home Child, I learned about the 100,000+ children who were taken from the streets, orphanages, and workhouses of England and sent to Canada with the promise of a better life, but who were mostly sold into indentured servitude and treated horrifically.

The Forgotten Home Child alternates between the past and present, following 97-year-old Winny in the present, and her and Jack in the past, starting in 1936 as they’re leaving London. They met on the streets as children and lived for a time with Jack’s sister Mary and a pair of brothers, Edward and Cecil. They stole money and food to survive until they were caught and sent to separate orphanages and then group homes. Winny and Mary were best friends, sisters of the heart, and the only constant in each other’s lives, and they were lucky to be kept together until they were sent to Canada.

As the story unfolds, we see Winny and Jack living in Canada, both on farms, both in rough conditions. Winny slept in a sheep barn, toiled away day and night, and was abused by her mistress. Jack was lucky enough to remain with Edward and Cecil, but his luck ended there; their master was a cruel, volatile, violent man who would beat the boys basically just for existing. We follow Winny and Jack through their years of being indentured and beyond until they’re finally reunited as adults.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s been a long time since I was so engrossed in a story and let the world fall away completely. It was a powerful, poignant, and heartbreaking story, made even more so by the fact it was based on true events. I think the initial idea of sending children to Canada might have been a good one; when I think of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I often think of dirty, gritty streets; countless people who were homeless, in workhouses, and/or working the streets; and orphaned children. So many people couldn’t afford to keep their children so they sent them into the streets or into orphanages, and those children were seen as a blight on already-overcrowded cities. Sending them abroad was supposed to give them a better life - homes, families, opportunities, a chance at a promising future - but with little to no checks and balances in place, the children were left to their fates, which were often worse than anything that would have happened to them back in England.

The Forgotten Home Child is my new favourite of Genevieve Graham’s books. A story about survival, identity, overcoming obstacles and trauma, and the family you create, The Forgotten Home Child will stick with me for a long time. It was heartbreaking, but it was hopeful too. It’ll be a book I recommend often, especially to fellow Canadians, and I hope to see the tragic history of the British Home Children talked about more widely.

Have you read The Forgotten Home Child? Were you aware of the British Home Children? What's an aspect of history you'd like to see written about more?

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