Book review: A home child attempts to reconnect with her family

Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry: A Home Child Experience

By Patricia Skidmore

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Dundurn, 295 pp., $30

Just south of Duncan, off Koksilah Road, a bit of history was made in the 1930s and 1940s. Canadian history, and British Commonwealth history as well.

That was the location of the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School, a home for children from the British Isles who had been orphaned or given up because of financial hardship.

One of the children who stayed at Fairbridge was Marjorie Arnison, a girl from Northumberland, England, who arrived at the farm in September 1937, the day after she turned 11. She had been taken from her mother, along with two sisters and a brother, after her father signed the papers making it possible.

Marjorie made the journey to Fairbridge with her brother. One sister joined them a year later, but another was not allowed to come — apparently because of an error in the records regarding the girl’s age. She was considered to be too old.

Patricia Skidmore is Marjorie’s daughter. She has spent years researching what happened to her mother, and discovering more about the experience of those who became known as “home children.”

More than 100,000 children were sent to Canada between the 1860s and 1930s. For some, the experience gave them better lives than they would have had, while for others, it was devastating. There were many reports of abuse.

All of the children had to deal with separation from their families and friends. They were raised in residences rather than homes, and forced to cope with daily lives that were far removed from what would be expected in a loving family home. These conditions can have lasting impacts.

In Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry, Skidmore explores the problems that have spanned generations. She notes her own difficulty, years ago, in accepting that her mother did not have a past.

This book is, to a large extent, Skidmore’s effort to reconnect her mother’s family, to bridge the gaps that were created in the 1930s. In it, she learns more about her mother and about home children, and helped find her own place as well.

Much of the book is written as a narrative, covering Marjorie’s life from her childhood in England through to the travel and hardships before she arrived at Fairbridge eight months later. It is an effective style, because it allows us to see the story through the eyes of a child — a child who is, after all, the central character.

At times, Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry is a frustrating read. We would love to know more about what happened to Marjorie’s siblings and how they coped after the family was ripped apart. We would especially like to know more about what happened to Joyce, the child deemed too old to come to Canada.

Of course, expanding the book to include the entire family would dilute what is at its core: a home-child experience. Besides, that lack of information is an effective tool, helping us to understand what it must have been like for Marjorie, growing up with so little knowledge of her brothers and sisters.

Adding a chapter on researching the lives of the home children could have helped others. Skidmore clearly has found many treasures in archives; those treasures will surely have information for many others.

For reasons that are not clear, the author and her mother were special guests in 2010 in London, when former prime minister Gordon Brown apologized for the deportation of all those children over all those years. Their attendance at the apology helped to heal the wounds for the two of them, although tens of thousands of home children and their descendants were not as lucky.

Let’s hope that this book leads to a greater understanding of what it was like to be a home child — and that the understanding will make it easier for more people to come to terms with having a parent with, apparently, no past.

Patricia Skidmore will make a special presentation on Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Fairbridge Chapel, 4791 Fairbridge Dr., Duncan.

The reviewer is the editor in chief of the Times Colonist, and author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.

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