Imagine my surprise at discovering a book that combines two time periods that hold great significance for me: World War II, the setting of my first book, and the British Child Migrant Program, known as the British Home Child Program, the setting of my second book which is still in progress.
It’s the early years of WWII. The Dunkirk evacuation is underway, and Ronnie Smith, the father of Maggie, Grace, and Billy, is over there somewhere, while his wife, Irene, is due to give birth to their fourth child. Maggie is a responsible, loving 12 year, old who takes her sister and brother in hand when their mother is unavailable, although there is a kindly neighbor, Katy, who watches the children.
The first disaster occurs when they learn that Ronnie was killed at Dunkirk. Things go from bad to worse when Irene gives birth to a fragile baby, their street is bombed, and Irene loses contact with her children.
The children wind up in an overcrowded orphanage. The ill and overworked Mother Superior assumes the children are orphans and arranges to have them shipped to Australia as child migrants. (Yes, this was a real program.)
Maggie does her best to keep her siblings together, but she is no match for the unfeeling bureaucracy that separates them and places them in Dickensian institutions, where food and love are in equally short supply.
Once the war ends, neither Maggie nor Irene give up believing that their missing family members are still alive, but it will not be easy to reconnect.
Joan Fallon’s writing gripped me from the first page. The characters, especially Maggie and Irene, are well-drawn and convincing in their circumstances. Maggie is forced to accept the role of mother to Gracie and Billy. She fights to keep them together and to protect them, as best she can. The love of this family sustains them, despite the vast distances and the utter lack of any means of communication that keep them apart. How mere children endured the chaos and insensitivity – no, make that cruelty - thrust upon them by supposedly well-meaning adults, is heartwrenching, shocking, and, sadly, an accurate picture of the Child Migrant Program, which operated through various organizations from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, shipping impoverished British children who were not always orphans, to Canada, Australia, and South Africa. (I am a descendant of one of these children, hence my familiarity with the program.)
Irene, the mother, is a bulldog determined to batter the doors of officialdom until she locates her children. A woman of her time, used to allowing men to lead, she becomes a woman of the future when she insists, again and again, on getting answers to her questions.
The pacing of the story at first felt a little slow, but it picked up speed as the story progressed to an ending that leaves the reader asking why such an insensitive, damaging program was allowed to exist as long as it did.
Written in the present tense, and mostly from Maggie’s point of view, it has an immediacy and urgency yet stays true to her age throughout the book. Be sure to have some tissues close by when you read it. You will need them.
Highly recommended, 5 stars.