CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 10 . . . . November 6, 2009
I expect few children in Canada have heard of the Home Children; in fact, I wonder how many Canadian adults know anything about them. I do because several of my schoolmate's fathers were amongst these children. I had been told that they were some of the Bernardo Boys and knew that they had been orphans. Two became upstanding members of our small community. Beryl Young's story of her father, also one of these boys, fills a very necessary gap in Canadian history. That she does so in such an interesting and thoughtful way is a tribute to her skill as a writer.
Charlie Harvey came from a poor, but happy, family of seven children that was devastated in 1910 by the death of their father. Although the mother, Hilda, tried valiantly to provide for her family, she was unable to do so and was forced to send her two boys and two older daughters away to a variety of orphanages. The eldest daughter was sent to work while the baby stayed at home. Because he was 13-years-old, Charlie was to go to Dr. Barnardo's Home in London where life was regimented but where he was well treated and fed. Unlike some of the other boys, he still had a family, even if they weren't together. The strong bond between mother and child is evident throughout. Charlie's mother was able to write him weekly letters and did so throughout his life. Soon after arriving at the Home, Charlie was sent to Canada as a Home Child. He hoped for a better life. According to the Agreement, he would work for a Canadian farmer until he turned eighteen. In addition, "he would receive his board and lodgings, clothing, and necessities. He would be allowed to attend school until he reached the age of fourteen."
Unfortunately, not all of the placements were beneficial to the children. The Agreement Charlie had signed was not fulfilled. "Some of these children were treated cruelly and their lives were difficult…." Charlie's first placement was just such a farm in Ontario. His bedroom - "a cot in a rough boarded room at one end of the outside porch… - was bitterly cold." "The lumpy mattress smelled of mouldy straw." A thin blanket could not keep him warm. Instead, he was required to do heavy farm work, the food was poor, he was not sent to school, and the money promised was not paid to him. Despite this, Charlie's stalwart approach to life is evident throughout the book. On his first night after reaching the farm, "[h]e shivered and cried, then after a while, wiped his face with the tail of his shirt and talked sharply to himself. Like it or not, this was his new life." However, Charlie was soon transferred to another home where he was treated as a member of the family. At 18, he joined the Army to serve in World War I. Following training, he was quickly sent to fight in the Somme Valley in France where he was wounded. After returning to Canada, he later became a RCMP officer and reached the rank of Inspector.
The 109 pages of Charlie: A Home Child's Life in Canada are encompassed in 10 chapters. Included are "A Family Torn Apart", "The New Land", "The World Is at War", and "Finding His Way." Because of the book's length, sufficient information is provided to readers to give them a good indication of Charlie's life, from age 13 until his death, as well as a sense of the times in general. Pages have ample white space with the text presented in two columns. Young's writing is clear and appropriate to the intended audience. The story is authentic in its details. Young writes realistically, for instance, about the horrors of war. An introduction explains what Home Children were and who Dr. Barnardo was. Approximately one half of the book deals with Charlie's adult life. Additional background information includes the sidebars: The Agreement, Working the Fields in 1912, The Great War, The RNWMP and the RCMP. Useful addenda are: A Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Photo Credits, as well as a list of Resources that includes books, film, and websites.
The authenticity of the times is also advanced by the attractive design of the book. A number of pages and the endpapers are in muted sepia tones. The front endpaper depicts a map of Canada pointing out where Charlie lived and worked. At the back is a map showing part of England and Europe where Charlie served in the army during WWI. Chapter numbers and sidebar titles are also in sepia tones. In addition, the title page and chapter pages use a faded picture of a boatload of Home Children in the same colour. Overlaid on each is a close-up that signifies the chapter's topic. The beginning of each chapter also depicts two humbugs – a favorite candy sold in Charlie's father's sweet shop. Sprinkled throughout the book are archival pictures and personal pictures: a few pictures of Charlie as a child, general pictures of the Bernardo Home, as well as others of early farming and Charlie as a farmhand. One picture shows his mother Hilda, little brother Arthur, and Charlie in uniform on leave in England. Others include pictures of the WWI trenches and Charlie as an RCMP officer. Each is well labelled to give background information and further expand the text. In addition, a sketch depicts the small bottle opener Charlie's mother gives him as a memento of his father. It is an important talisman that helps Charlie through some very hard times.
Children will certainly be able to identify with Charley. Although there is no Index, this title can be very useful. It is enjoyable for personal reading and as an interesting biography, as well as in classrooms as an excellent source of background material. For instance, the details of farming life in the early 1900s, information about WWI, and the RCMP all have ties to the social studies curricula. Furthermore, Charlie: A Home Child's Life in Canada could also act as a stimulus for children to investigate their heritage by exploring their parents' or grandparents' lives.
Marilynne V. Black is a former B.C. elementary teacher librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children's Literature (UBC) in the spring of 2005. She is now working as an independent children's literature consultant with a web site at www.heartofthestory.ca.
To comment on this title or this review, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.