by A.N. Arthur
I have often wondered why we have such a high rate of child abuse in this country and I am sure stories like Orphanage Boys provide part of the answer.
While our country is over 700 years old our histories largely record the last 250. This focuses us on settlement by Europeans and how those early settlers adjusted to an unfamiliar environment. Now that the stories are coming out we are discovering that it was pretty tough going. Orphanage Boys is just one example of how tough it must have been. The events are disturbing but if we are never told about them we will never know the true nature of this country and its people.
Orphanage Boys had me absorbed from the moment I read the first paragraph. We immediately knew there was something going on that was about to change Jimmy and Samuel’s lives. As the circumstances unfolded these suspicions were tragically confirmed. These events led to big changes for the two boys.
As a reader, I experienced a sense of impending doom when Fraser, unable to care for the two boys, put them into care at Stoke Orphanage. Then he went off to find work and never returned, not entirely due to his own fault, although one wonders why he did not make more of an effort to connect with the boys.
There have been many accounts of what went on in orphanages run by the Catholic Church. As soon as we knew where Fraser was leaving them we knew life was going to be challenging.
My lasting memory of that first terrible night at the orphanage was of a maggot in a boy’s food. That night Samuel and Jimmy did not eat. However, one can assume they eventually joined the group of ill-treated, hapless boys who ate whatever was put in front of them, maggots and all. There were moments when I wanted to get into the skin of the boys just a little bit more, without it becoming morbid and depressing.
There is no question terrible things happened. But Samuel and Jimmy were the story’s redemption. Jimmy remained gentle, likable, hopeful and kind throughout the story. Samuel aggressively toughened, which was not surprising when he was victimised as he was.
There were moments of levity – such as building the dam, and the escapades at night. These were moments that reminded me of how irrepressible a young person’s spirit can be.
Jimmy was someone to whom we warmed from the outset. He was young and vulnerable. His older brother, shouldered the responsibility of caring for them both and this formed a different kind of character. The unwanted attention from Father Donatus only adds to his smouldering anger. Just how that finally expresses itself is for the reader to find out
Sometimes I felt the dialogue did not quite fit the speaker. For example, Samuel says, “That Brother Donatus…He’s a piece of work…” (39) Although it is explained as being something his father might have said, I was not convinced that this is how a young boy would speak. I would expect both boys to have a distinct vernacular.
I did feel that there would have been more of an aftermath to Brother Donatus’ attacks and a relating of the psychological impact on the boys as they became men. This was their story and I wanted to follow those stories on the landscape without it intruding.
I learnt more about my country and that was worthwhile.
This is an important story and I hope many people read it because it records the forming of our post settlement nation. Understanding our past helps to explain the present and perhaps heal the future.
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