Orphans Then, Now

Book Review

A CASUALTY OF GRACE

Lisa Brown

2015

ASIN: B0161OHSVC

Lisa Brown’s third novel to accurately, yet emotionally, portray the lives of her English ancestors who became 19th century Canadian pioneers surprised me. It is a more focused story than The Porter’s Wife and The Seeds of Sorrow, and much deeper psychologically. It worked for me as a novel of suspense. I knew something bad was going to happen to one of the young brothers, or between them, and I kept reading because I was on tenterhooks and could not sleep until I knew just what it was. It was like watching a thunderstorm broil up from distant clouds and roll toward me over the landscape until there was a mind-blowing crescendo right over my head.

I have felt amply rewarded in following this genealogy project which clearly has involved Brown in painstaking research about the Canadian frontier. I frankly don’t know enough about it, even though I have lived pretty close to its borders. I appreciate Brown as a clear and trustworthy narrator who brings history to life by describing the ordinary details of everyday work and relationships, and imagining the human responses of her characters. Notably, they had to make hard choices – sometimes not so hard when they were hungry.

Of course, to most people alive today, what was “ordinary” to 19th century farmers and settlers seems extraordinary, including the slow pace at which they managed to get through very difficult days. The story of Oliver and Simon delivers a painful memory of institutions created in large part to the early deaths of impoverished parents through disease and violence. As it happens, this recall is timely. In the last couple of years we have seen an unanticipated surge of abandoned and homeless children, first as a result of Ebola in Africa, and now from the destruction of Syria. In her preface, Brown explains the role orphanages played in those earlier migrations from Britain to younger countries that needed more helping hands. She warns us that the arrangements were not always motivated by lovingkindness or even understanding of human childhood needs. Whether or not she intended to raise questions about our present situation, she certainly has. In this non-agrarian age, what are we going to do for these thousands of destitute and traumatized 21st century children left on their own?

Brown’s new novel also resonates with concerns about domestic violence. Orphan boys arriving to work in fields and barns in exchange for a roof over their heads and decent meals had seen cruelty in their circumstances, but not necessarily anger. Oliver is old enough to remember his father having to work hard and rarely spending time with him, but he was a good parent. Much affection came from his mother. Younger Simon has few memories of hardship. He expects to be treated well and he is, without suspecting it might be twisted, or even wondering why his brother is not as lucky. Oliver, forced to be wise beyond his years, is constantly fearful, and when any kindness is shown him (again, by the females in his life) he is astonished.

The farmer who takes the boys is a villain, yet we eventually understand why. This bleak landscape is not just about the vagaries of nature and its impact on economics and social structure; it is about patterns. It instructs us that psychopathic behavior does not just appear randomly, and that children, like crops, must be nurtured into maturity by caring adults who were taught about love in their own childhood.

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This review was originally published on www.bookpleasures.com, October 18, 2015.

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