From 1896 to 1948, over 100,000 children were shipped from Britain to Canada under the “British Home Child” program. It is a little-known part of Canadian history, and one not to be especially proud of. Bestselling author Genevieve Graham (Tides of Honour, At the Mountain’s Edge) has crafted a fine example of how historical fiction can be both entertaining and informative*. In The Forgotten Home Child, Ms. Graham forthrightly tackles the issues surrounding the implementation of the BHC program in England and its consequences to the children once they arrived in Canada. To accomplish this, she did substantial research as well as talking to British Home Child (BHC) relatives and groups. She details this in A Note to Readers at the back of the book. Her characters, while fictional, undergo many of the trials that actual Home Children experienced, based on her research.
The primary characters are a small group of homeless children living on the streets of London as one would see (or read) in Oliver Twist or David Copperfield (but “without the singing and dancing” as one character quips). They are Jack, his younger sister Mary, two brothers, Edward and Cecil, and Winny. They have all either been forced out of home or left on their own. In Winny’s case, she was leaving a gin-loving abusive step-father, whom her mother only kept around to pay the rent. In an effort to rid the streets of this plague, the authorities rounded the children up, sent them to orphanages (which were overcrowded) or to one of Dr. Barnardo’s homes for destitute girls and boys. Eventually, the healthiest and strongest were sent to Canada to be employed as domestics or farmhands until they were eighteen years of age. As there were few checks and balances in the distribution system, abuses occurred, and many of them are dramatically written into each character’s experience in The Forgotten Home Child.
Note: this review may contain what some may consider plot spoilers. You may wish to skip to the conclusion below.
Jack Miller and Winnifred (“Winny”) Ellis
Jack and Winny are the main protagonists, and the story is told in alternating time periods, in the past (beginning in 1936) and the present (2018). The “present” part of the narrative is told by a ninety-seven-year-old Winny as she is now living with her grand-daughter Chrissie and her son Jamie. Winny has kept the secret of her past from them, but in moving, Chrissie accidentally drops a small wooden trunk that spills its contents. This is the original trunk (they were handmade and measured approximately 27″ long x 14″ deep x 13″ high) that held all of Winny’s belongings when she was sent to Canada. The Pandora’s box now having been opened so to speak, Winny knows the time has come to relieve herself of the weighty burden she has been carrying for so long.
Arriving in Canada
Once the children get off the boat in Halifax, they are sent to different distribution centres, to be connected with their Masters (or Mistresses as the case may be). The boys (Jack, Cecil and Edward) are separated from Mary and Winny, then Mary is taken by a different sponsor at the train station in Peterborough. Winny is the last one left until Mistress Adams shows up. Winny is immediately put to work by the gruff Adams, and not allowed to sleep or eat in the main house. Things were much better back in London at the home where she and Mary were living in. Things are not much better for Mary, who is similarly mistreated at the Renfrew’s home not far from the Adams’ farm. The boys are working on a farm as well, for a cruel Master Warren, who beats the lads and even beats another, Quinn, so severely that he eventually dies of his wounds. The boys try to escape the farm, for anything is better than life on Warren’s farm.
If all this sounds very bleak and depressing, it is, and all the more so since abuse actually happened to many (75%, it is estimated) of the BHC. However, the fortunes of the gang soon change and they are off in different directions once again.
The Forgotten Home Child is an excellent example of how historical fiction can entertain and inform. I never knew about the existence of the British Home Child program and now thanks to Ms. Graham’s in-depth research and contact with BHC relatives, we come away from her book not only with a heightened understanding but also with a keen awareness of yet another shameful chapter in Canadian history. The book also includes the aforementioned A Note to Readers which has some archival photographs and the incredible story of how a woman named Lori Oschefski discovered the mass grave of British Home Children in Etobicoke’s Parl Lawn Cemetary and raised funds to identify each one of the seventy-five BHC buried there. There are monuments in other places, too such as at Pier 21 in Halifax, where many of the children (including the ones in this book) landed. The back of the book also has questions for consideration and a section for Book Club discussions. The Forgotten Home Child, is in my estimation, the finest book yet from the pen of Genevieve Graham. True, it is a slight departure from her other much-loved historical-fiction/romance novels, but her longtime readers will not be disappointed. As one of her many Twitter followers said: “I’ve learned more Canadian history from reading @GenGrahamAuthor than I ever did in High School!”
Five stars and I am long-listing The Forgotten Home Child for a 2020 “The Very Best!” Book Award for Best Historical Fiction.
*Note: this review is based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by the author in exchange for a fair review.
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