Orphans Then, Now

Book Review


Lisa Brown



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.


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


The Boundaries of Desire: Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities

Eric Berkowitz
Counterpoint, 2015
ISBN 978-1-61902-529-5

Nudity Barely on Display

Nude Out of Reach

Eric Berkowitz has followed his 2012 Sex and Punishment, an entertaining history of sex laws over the past 4000 years, with this more relevant and disturbing account of sex laws over just the past 100, laws that have influenced our social standards and that sometimes support and sometimes challenge our right to govern our own sensuality.

Interviewed on Public Radio last August, the human rights lawyer set the stage by pointing out that, as religion lost its authority over our lives, we turned to the social sciences for moral guidance, and the initial result was that “what were sins became mental illnesses.” Prostitutes were feeble-minded and a “one-way flow of venereal disease toward men;” and homosexuals were “naturally inclined toward crimes against children, toward political disloyalty, toward all kinds of anti-social things.” These imperfect beings had to be eliminated one way or another.

The fights for justice for just these two categories of sexual behavior give us incredible insight into our own bizarre portion of social history. We appear to be hopelessly ambivalent about sex.

Modesty at the beach circa 1945

Modesty at the beach circa 1945

Many familiar scandals of our era are present in this book: miscegenation, adultery, obscenity, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, child porn, “sexting,” and campus rape. So are controversies, such as the fairness of sex offender registries. Berkowitz frequently represents domestic abuse victims in court, and so he devotes much space to marital sex in its relationship to the evolving legal definitions of rape. It is this subject that drives home the reality that any answers from the social sciences will never be final ones and therefore the law as we attempt to establish it will never be complete.

Mom and Dad 1937

Mom and Dad 1937

The author’s engaging prose helps the reader get through the fact-packed account with sustained interest, but absorbing it all takes weeks. It is tempting, therefore, to relegate this type of nonfiction to the reference shelf. Yet the cumulative effect is to make one think deeply about one’s own experience of what underlies and surrounds those facts. My initial reaction was to feel let down; it seems that any residual romantic notions my pre-pill generation might have of physical intimacy have been trampled by its preponderance of economic uses. “Having sex” instead of “making love” says it all.

Grandpa and Grandma as I Knew Them

Grandpa and Grandma as I Knew Them

I was reminded of Lisa See’s memorable reference in her historical novel Snow Flower to what women in her Chinese family called “bed business.” Sex was used to influence their men; it was all about gaining financial security and status. I was shocked when I read it and yet I recognized that motive as acceptable in my mother’s generation, up until the time most women could be financially independent. In many places in our world and nation that time never comes.

That is perhaps the lasting message here, that money is the motive behind almost all sexual activity. One exception of course is the natural urge that might be construed as pure joy or pure selfishness, the “sex drive” that we worry about. We would like to keep our adolescents safe from it, and in mentally diminished people it has to be controlled. Another exceptional motive is the kind of loneliness that can be satisfied temporarily by physical closeness.

BadgeBut The Boundaries of Desire is not really about sex. It is about our desire to control sex. And it a book we do not want to shelve at all. It should be placed handily for reflection and discussion, and certainly for attempting to understand the varied “normal” responses to that fundamental urge, including fear. It might also remind us that trying to regulate bodily functions within a court of law is apt to be just a p—–g contest.


This review was originally  written for www.bookpleasures.com and posted September 15, 2015.

What Aging Men Really Want




Author: John C. Robinson

Publisher: Psyche Books

ISBN: 978-1-78099-981-4

The Iliad and The Odyssey are staples of the liberal arts, long poems written by a Greek 2500 years ago. The first tells the story of the 10 year-long Trojan War. The second, crucial to this nonfiction work, is about a hero experiencing its troubling aftermath (perhaps metaphorically analogous to what we call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). Men leaving the workplace battles today in this condition are improved by coming to a personal understanding of the monsters in these mythological tales.

Timely though it seemed, my husband refused to read this book with me. He is 72 and still teaching English literature to college students. He has had to concede that Robinson seems to truly understand the text, but he disapproves of using literary works “this way.” I reminded him that Hamlet has been used by many artists to stimulate personal growth, with varying interpretations to appeal to the changing needs of audiences. He had to concede that also. He just doesn’t want to think about retirement.

This is a beautiful book that is well-written and expertly designed to serve men meeting in groups to help each other ease into the last stage of their lives by recognizing its benefits. The ancient story of Odysseus is still exciting and terrifying, even in its condensed version here. What Robinson makes of it seems natural and now even obvious to me –it should be prescribed reading for all wives who are frustrated by their husbands’ refusal to give up the battles to enjoy the comforts of family. It may help to prepare a softer landing.

The author has written several books to document human growth in aid of his professions, both clinical psychology and spiritual counseling. In this one he does not stand above his audience; he confesses his own resistance to the aging process. He represents the experience of an entire generation of traditional males who came to crisis during the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Some of them broke with tradition then, and learned to pound on drums and to cry, as in the subsequent men’s liberation movement inspired by another poet in Iron John (Robert Bly, 1990). These are the men Robinson says now must reinvent themselves yet again.

Here’s how it works: In the poem, the war weary Odysseus is trying to reach his home, but there are challenges. While a college student might view these as “cool” (and sexy) fantastical adventures, Robinson says, “Each challenge comprises a threshold of understanding– an experience that must be admitted to consciousness, understood and accepted for the journey to continue”. He summarizes each dangerous encounter; gives it a psychological interpretation; discusses its relevance to contemporary male experience, e.g., the competitive workplace; then poses a challenge and “growth questions,” stimulating further self-exploration and discussion. At the end of the book there are several more chapters of discussion and guidelines for creating a group that can carry this exercise out in a supportive environment (i.e., with men who don’t mind talking about their feelings and personal lives). Importantly, Robinson does not paint retirement as all bliss waiting for them. He acknowledges likely troubles at home during the hero’s absence, complicated by longevity. “Retirement” is a matter of leaving wars we no longer believe in, and coming home to love, spiritual awareness, and death.

It will help the prospective reader to become reacquainted with the methods of “depth psychology.” We benefit only if we consider our own dreams important, and the Odyssey as a series of cultural dreams that have meaning for each of us. It is using stories as our own dreams that offends my husband, but I don’t think too many of us outside academia will have that problem. Many of us have read The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell, 1949) which Robinson also cites.

I love this book for what it offers and how clearly it is written, and I appreciate the author as someone careful to make good on a revered piece of literature. I do hope, though – and this is not a paid announcement – that readers take the trouble to read the entire work by Homer. Robinson has used Lattimore’s English translation, which my husband considers top notch.



This review was written for and originally published by www.bookpleasures.com.

New Elder Incomers

Artist Trudi Heeb captures the essence of waiting in this montage.

Old age waiting. Montage by Trudy Heeb

As the news unfolds day by day about migrations from Syria and Iraq into Europe, I feel as if I am seeing our world a hundred years ago. The idea of the “huddled masses” arriving at Ellis Island is brought home in the tired and sometimes angry faces pausing at the TV cameras.

One distinctive characteristic is that the adults are educated. Some are qualified professionals seeking better opportunities and freedom. That was perhaps exceptional in the 19th Century, especially among the families leaving impoverished farms, but we remember that the United States benefitted from the importation of many great minds in the 20th, notably from Germany. Political and religious persecution has continuously driven the intellectual elite to our shores.

What I think is particularly tragic now is the uprooting of the grandparents who see their families greeted by quickly erected lethal fences and steel batons. Of course adult children today do not want to leave their elders behind. It goes against the grain, and is impractical if the grandparents are providing childcare or domestic help. Neglecting elders is illegal in some societies. But what do these migrants think they can offer them under these conditions?

And what do the elders think? Do they really want to start life over again in their seventies and eighties? It’s not as if they are moving from New York to Florida like my fictional Sophie and her friends, or to California, Nevada, Texas and Arizona as “active retirees” looking forward to snow-free winters. If they are lucky, they will be sitting silent and bewildered in the corners of apartments, perhaps in kitchens just like our great-great-grandparents did back in the 1870s and 1930s, wearing their old-fashioned clothes, wondering if the children they brought into the world are going to make it through the economic storms. They can’t go out on their own as they won’t recognize the neighborhoods, the patterns of daily life, or even the language.

Urban Development in London

Urban Development in London

It is easy to understand why incomers colonize, living cheek to jowl with their countrymen and countrywomen, in strange urban settings. The rapid influx may be frightening to the natives, but unless the natives offer to bring the new arrivals into the fold, teach them the local ways, these immigrants are going to build their own communities within the larger ones, making them larger and stronger, and safe for asserting their cultural identities.

Seaside houses at Chichester

Seaside houses at Chichester

Perhaps this is not unlike Florida in earlier decades, and perhaps not unlike Britain, where three times as many retirees will live in rural villages seacoast towns as in the cities. But there is one difference. The new immigrants with grandparents in tow are flocking to large cities where there are jobs, while American and English elders have been resettling in pastoral areas where it is peaceful. There may not be sufficient services in these rural places to accommodate their needs, but our secure elders will survive as long as they drive cars. The immigrant elders have no choice. They are set down in strange and complicated environments as helpless as babes.


For more on this subject see http://theweek.com/articles/462230/how-elderly-are-treated-around-world

On England’s elder resettlement see http://www.theguardian.com/society/2000/dec/14/housingpolicy/communities


BOOK REVIEW: Nurse Recalls Scottish Isles in Fragile 1970s


Mary J. MacLeod

Arcade Publishing, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62872-536-0 (PB)

ISBN: 978-1-62872-543-8 (Ebook)

To read a book is like opening a gate into another room, another country, another time, another person's dream.

To read a book is like opening a gate into another room, another country, another time, another person’s dream.

There are many layers to the enjoyment of reading this book and its predecessor (CALL THE NURSE, 2008). First, you learn about district nursing, an enviable aspect of the National Health Service in Britain. In this case, it provides care in a remote part of the kingdom, those dozens of raggedy-looking islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, known as The Hebrides. Nurse MacLeod, relocated from southern England with her husband and two younger children, seeking a more peaceful life, is drafted as what we in the United States call a Rural Health nurse. However, it is in the 1970s we see her on her calls, and if you were to look into her profession today you would find it much changed. In the last 15 years, the number of district nurses has dropped by half, and it is feared to be a nearly extinct profession. All the more reason for this now-80-year-old nurse to write about those days when health visitors cared for people in their homes, especially the elderly.

Secondly, the misty island in the prehistoric archipelago where for six years she lived and worked, was 20 miles long and split by mountains, and a long way from civilization. Today you can fly in for wildlife tours, but in the 1970s just getting supplies required two ferry boat rides and 100 miles by sometimes impassable roads. It is no surprise, then, that the islands and islets were being deserted as agricultural lands. There were sheep, but fishing was not sustainable and tourism too narrow a window for opportunity. The energy industries had yet to take off. Children were leaving to survive, and the only people remaining were old.

Still, its culture was alive and kicking at many a ceilidh (spontaneous party) in crofters’ kitchens and in everyday coping with the winds and wilds of the barren landscape, dangerous crashing of waves carrying boats upon boulders, night arrivals of strangers, and closely guarded family secrets. The inhabitants themselves cast a safety net by relaying urgent news and cheerful gossip. Their white cottages scattered over the terrain were still kept warm by peat fires that streamed dark ribbons from their chimneys. And up in the hills there was blessed — or cursed — emptiness.

MacLeod’s prose is mesmerizing in describing the beauty of this otherwise timeless place: “The sea moved sluggishly, restlessly eddying into caves, slushing among the pebbles, the waves continuously folding and unfolding in their timeless dance.” She writes of wildlife: “Our peace was shattered, momentarily, by the singing wings of a pair of swans flying in perfect harmony, their long necks undulating as they wheeled towards the small lochan where they had been repairing last year’s nest.”

For all its ethereal beauty, this was not an easy life. Though it was George’s family heritage that had brought them here, he had to leave periodically for assignments in places as far as South Africa. And though nursing was not in her plans, Mary J. realized her skills were badly needed. Helping people out of cars tipped into the boggy ditches seems dramatic from here but became as common to her as cleaning wounds and giving baths. She had to be ready to take on almost any medical challenge because the only doctor was miles and hours away. She adapted, though it took her a while to realize wellies were better than shoes when calling upon her neighbors, and that an umbrella was useful only as a walking stick. Storms came up suddenly, and it was cold and wet most of the time, leaving the roads a mess. The old men especially were undaunted by the hazards, especially after a drink or more. Old ladies bravely became isolated. Sometimes childbirth took girls and their mothers by surprise. Occasionally an emergency involved one of her sons. Wherever there was trouble, whoever was aware of it arrived to help.

A special treat in reading these stories is local language. “Ach! The bodach! He’s that cantankerous.” The older patients spoke a “quaint” form of English while others spoke only Gaelic. There’s a glossary in back, but I enjoyed the Kindle’s ability to find the meaning of obscure and ancient usages, and thus more history.

Before the end of this second set of stories, the company George worked for went bankrupt and after six years at home in The Hebrides, the MacLeods left for California and Nevada. Here Nurse MacLeod had time to reflect on the contrasts. Now she lives in Cornwall.



Find this and other reviews by Karen Dahood at www.bookpleasures.com.