Thursday, 27 June 2013

Orphans, Bastards and Unwanted Children

Over the past few months I have been researching stories about orphans, unwanted children, and bastards, possibly for a PhD proposal. There are loads of children's books out there that have orphans as protagonists. Presumably because it is easier for them and unwanted children to have adventures. I totally believed in the worlds created by the authors. At 8 years old, after reading Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg (1967), where Elizabeth has to eat raw eggs, raw onions and other concoctions to become a witch, I too began drinking raw egg in milk. A slimy concoction that felt like I was swallowing a toad, and I believed I could fly. I spent many happy hours flying round and round in the garden on my magic broomstick. I loved all the Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton, all abandoned children left alone to have adventures. As a child I remember becoming totally lost in children’s books especially those about orphans and spent most of my spare time reading. Books were my medicine and they saved my sanity. 

Having suggested to Emily Benet, Andrew Bradford, Wendy Shillam and Lindsay Bamfield that we write about our favourite books, I decided to put my research to good use and list my top ten books about Orphans, Bastards and Unwanted Children. I've included a mixture of children's books, fiction and non-fiction. Andrew and Wendy called their lists, 'summer reading' but some of these books should be read in winter, when it is dark, stormy and cold outside - oh hang on, it is! So here is my wintery summer collection:

1. Island by Jane Rogers – Mainstream Publishing 2000 

This is one of my all time favourite books. Nikki Black (her third name) is a bastard who has been shunted about to and from various foster and children’s homes. And now she has decided to murder her mother. At this point Nikki is stereotypical of an adult with a care background (often portrayed as bad, mad, or sad in crime dramas). Rogers takes this stereotype and turns it on its head. This book has everything I love; magic, fairy stories, myths, legends, bad - rude characters, love, detecting and a sort of happy ending.

2. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Geoffrey Bles 1950

A childhood favourite of mine. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were sent away from home. And so they are included in my list because they were temporarily unwanted. They were sent to live with a mad, old professor in a wonderful house with a magical wardrobe through which the children enter into a wintery world. I have an old Puffin edition of this book with the illustration of the two girls putting flowers around Aslan, Lord of the Wood. A truly magical story that took me from dreary old London into a world of magical beasts and scary witches.

3. The Secret Garden by F Hodgson Burnett – William Heinemann 1911 

No orphan list would be complete without The Secret Garden. I knew this story was for me from the very first sentence, ‘When Mary lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.’ I was an ugly child, disagreeable, and like Mary cross, very, very cross with the world and everybody in it and especially social workers. Having a character I could identify with was very important, I inhabited the fictional world for a while and escaped the madness all around me.

4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Virago Press 1999 

Astrid, another bastard, brought up in children’s homes, foster homes and remand centres, who had a mad poet for a mother. The language reflects this and is beautifully written. Astrid’s mother murders her lover. When she is imprisoned for life, Astrid’s life turns to shit. The novel has a dreamlike quality so that the reader seems to float above the narrative only falling with the protagonist when the bad stuff happens.

5. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce - Oxford University Press 1958 

Another childhood favourite. Tom is not an orphan but he is sent away at the beginning of the summer holidays because his brother has measles. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle who don’t have a garden. This book was possibly inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) as in the hallway, there is an old clock that strikes thirteen. Tom like Mary in the Secret Garden, is bad tempered and rude. And of course for me it had all my favourite ingredients, nasty children who were really rather lovely inside, magical places, best friends and even time travel.

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - Smith, Elder and Co 1847

This is a classic orphan story, a Cinderella tale set against the backdrop of the wild yorkshire moors. For some reason I always thought that children born at the turn of the century behaved themselves. So when I read of Jane being dragged away kicking and screaming to be locked in the haunted red room, I was transfixed. Here was not a docile child, but one who spoke her mind and when at last cannot stand to be bullied one more time, fought with her fists. Jane is an orphan, living with her cruel aunt who tells her she is less than a servant because she does nothing for her keep. After her temper tantrum, she is sent to a boarding school, she gains an education which allows her to become a governess to the ‘dark and sardonic’ Mr Rochester and falls in love with him. Love, passion, disappointment, (not in that order) Jane Eyre is one of the best-loved British novels of all time.

7. Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum - George M Hill Company 1900

Although this was orignally a book, most of us know this story because we saw the film and so I am going to include it as this story had such a profound effect on me and still has to this day. Apparently, The Wizard of Oz, is one of the most popular films of all time. So it only stands to reason that there must bits in it that appeal to us all. I remember being taken to see this film when I was 5 years old. It was to be many years before I could work out why the film had such an effect, why it felt like part of me, why I learnt all the words to all the songs and would sing them over and over again, driving everybody up the wall. In his introduction to the story, L.Frank Baum said he was writing to please children, ‘a fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.’ He has done that and will continue to do so for as long as children read the book or watch the film.

8. The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt – Mainstream Publishing 2003

This book is not a novel but reads like a story and because it is so well written it found a place on my ‘favourites’ shelf. I’ve done a lot of research over the years about children in care and I’ve read a lot of misery lit, memoirs about awful lives. But this book is different, there is not one iota of Hewitt feeling sorry for himself. His mother whilst married gave birth to another man’s child – Paolo, in a Mental Hospital, and that is only the start of his story. As soon as you start reading this book you feel safe, in the hands of a seasoned writer who knows how to use language and create an authentic atmosphere.

9. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – Pandora Press 1985

This autobiographical novel is filled with God and doing things we’re not (according to some parents) supposed to do. As a child I had to attend Sunday school and church and after lunch, we were forced to read the bible all afternoon. I spent the first part of Sunday mornings with nuns who passed their belief of hell, purgatory and sin onto me before running up Muswell Hill to our Lady of Muswell church and communion. Communion was always hell in its own way if I hadn’t been to confession to confess all the sins I’d committed that week. I hate so and so. I stole this or that. I was rude, I was bad, I swore and so on. Then the added of sin of communion without confession would be a bad start to any week. Winterson was adopted by an evangelical mother and father, her dead-pan Northern humour brings the book to hilarious life and yet at the same time there is a sadness from a child who loves her mother and just wants to be loved in return. It is a book filled with knowledge and wisdom of how it feels to be different.

10. The Seven Sisters By Alex Wheatle – Fourth Estate 2002

My final top ten book is a book I read recently. It’s set in the 1970s, in a children’s home where four boys, best mates, decide to run away together. A sort of Lord of the Flies story but with the horrifying reality of what some children in care have had to face while being looked after by their supposed carers. It is a time when children roamed the streets and played outside all day. This story has you biting finger and toenails, a truly emotive narrative that has you crying one moment and laughing out loud the next. Wheatle has capured the era and it is the little details as well as the strong friendship between the boys that brings this book to life.

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