There is a picture that sits on the desk where Genevieve Graham writes her novels. It is a black-and-white image of a little girl – no more than five years old – looking out of the frame with an expression of fear, confusion, bewilderment in eyes that are far too large in her thin face.
The girl in the picture is Alice Elsom. Alice was a “home child,” one of hundreds of thousands of impoverished British children who were sent to places like Canada (and other colonies of the Empire) to work in homes and farms as indentured servants, a “charitable” program that continued well into the 20th century. It is these children – and their heartbreaking stories of abuse, stigmatization and generational trauma – that are the subject of Graham’s latest historical novel, The Forgotten Home Child.
Toronto-born Graham has written over half a dozen other books of historical fiction, many bestsellers, but this – this was something different, apparent almost immediately after she stumbled on an internet article that mentioned the children.
“When I find my stories, it’s never because I’m looking for them,” Graham said over the phone recently. “But when I do, I feel a shift in my mind that yes, this is the one. There are a lot of things that are interesting, but they don’t do what I need them to do, which is to fill my soul. And this one did that right away.”
After that serendipitous 2017 discovery, Graham did what she always does when beginning one of her books: She headed to her local library, ordering every possibly related book on the topic. (She lives in a small Nova Scotia town, so often she has to get things sent from bigger branches.) Graham – who says she slept through history in high school – can only tolerate this “dry” part of the job for so long, and fairly quickly she reaches out to academics who specialize in whatever area she’s investigating. All of this research is what she calls generating the “black and white photograph” of the past, the establishing of the fact and context, which is integral to the integrity of her stories. (“If my characters want to have a cup of tea, I need to know what kind of cup they’re drinking from, where they got the tea,” Graham, a self-described “stickler” says. “In order to feel a part of it, I have to know every tiny thing.”)
What comes next is what she calls the “colourization” of that picture, building in the emotion, the depth, the humanity that she likens to the work photographers used to do when they added rosy cheeks, blue eyes, bright patterns to the previously two-toned images they’d taken. “That’s when you’re teaching people’s hearts as well as their heads,” explains Graham. For this novel, much of that “colour” – if you can ascribe that word to such dark things – came from the real stories of actual home children. These Graham found, in large part, through Facebook groups run by their descendants, many the first in their families to break the silence on a subject that their mother or grandmother, father or grandfather, rarely ever addressed themselves.
“The people on those pages are incredible,” she says. “Think of how hard it must have been for them to get their ancestors to talk about themselves. If you grew up in that age where men never cried and women never talked about their problems, and then to compound it with all the stuff they had gone through – to get them to open up must have been really something.” Often, Graham says, the children of home children grew up knowing nothing about their parent’s past, not understanding why their own childhoods may have lacked warmth or stability or emotional openness. “But as you get to our generation, where we do talk about things, people are discovering that the reason their families were a little bit messed up was because of what goes back to their grandparents.” In contrast to the shame carried by the home children themselves, members of that third or fourth generation, however, are passionate about bringing this chapter of Canada’s history into the light. Graham says she is indebted to many people who shared information, anecdotes and even tangible pieces of their family’s story with her.
That picture on her desk, for instance, was sent to her by Alice’s descendants, and she actually gave one of her protagonists Alice’s great big eyes. After extensive research, including surveys of those relations, Graham took all those stories (and, of course, her own imagination) to plot out the parallel narratives of Winny and Jack, two teenagers taken from an English orphanage in 1936 and sent to Ontario to work as labourers on farms. In theory, it was supposed to set them on the path to a better life, away from the grinding poverty of an overcrowded country. In reality, the adults who were supposed to watch over them sent them into situations of disturbing neglect and abuse.
Which goes a long way to explain why, when finally it came time to put that story to paper, Graham says she embarked on one of the hardest experiences of her writing life. (In an encouraging aside to any later bloomers out here: Now in her fifties, Graham, a trained oboist who was for many years a stay-at-home mom, only began writing at 42, never having penned more “than a thank you note.”)
“I would sit at my computer and weep,” says Graham, who says she cried throughout the writing and editing of The Forgotten Home Child, often to the soundtrack of an album called Rain In Your Eyes by Ezio Bosso, an Italian musician with a neurodegenerative disease. “That shows how much this story took over,” says Graham. “I’m not normally a sad music person, but I listened to it so much I heard it in my sleep.” She pauses. “I heard the children in my sleep.”
And this story had – and has – an incredibly powerful hold on her. “It’s the one I’m closest to,” says Graham, who has found her niche in writing entertaining, accessible stories about little-known parts of Canadian history. Not because of any known relation to a home child in her own family, but because “I learned about the abuse and neglect of so many children, and I thought, ‘No one knows about them.’ That got to me. It hurt to know that.”
Her hope with The Forgotten Home Child, then, is more than to make you cry (although heads up, you probably will). For Graham, this is about remembrance – and the next generation. “What I really want, what the descendants want, is to get this information into schools. There are 120,000 children that we don’t remember. We need to teach our children about those children.”
As for Graham? She couldn’t forget if she tried. There’s that picture of Alice, for starters, that she knows she has to send back to the family eventually. And, of course, there is the presence of those forgotten home children themselves.
“They’re still very much with me,” she says.
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