I got Listen to the Child from Hookline with a pitch about how everyone should try to read this book once in their lives, and how few novels stir the emotions as much as this book. It’s the story of East End orphans going to rural Canadian families
I was excited to read it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the depictions of East End poverty in Shadows of the Workhouse, but I did learn a great deal, and I was interested in reading more about that time period. I also really liked idea of orphans setting out for new homes — Well, what little girl doesn’t love the first Anne of Green Gables? (before there’s a psychotic child on the scene, obviously.) I also remember reading and enjoying a middle-grades Orphan Train series but oddly, googling for plucky street kids and dour homesteaders didn’t turn anything up.
This is possibly one of the worst books I’ve read. There’s some weird poverty porn, with an 11-year-old prostitute taking extra client so her 7-year-old sister won’t have to work, and a Tiny Tim hunchbacked from making matchbooks all day and then shoved into a weighted jacket to “cure” him, which was definitely OTT for me. But the real problem isn’t the quantity of East End misery, it’s that these hardships aren’t used as a setting for compelling characters or interesting events. I had to keep checking which tale of woe belongs to which child. Was this the family where the dad drown at sea or the one where the mom’s dying of syphilis? Are they in hock to a landlord or to gambling debts? etc. etc. etc. No one grows or changes over the course of this novel, although a lot of people die.
There’s just no nuance in this book. After uniformly miserable East End lives, the children are sent to uniformly cruel Canadian families. They are all uniformly exploitative, except for one wealthy, childless couple who are just as one-dimensionally kind their adopted daughter. And it’s a cruelty without subtlety or reason. These aren’t families who take on an East End orphan but favor their own children with larger meals or better clothes. They don’t struggle to understand each others’ accents or lifestyles or priorities. Just instant exploitation, and a continued list of misery for the flat victims. It’s weird that with the amount of violence, deprivation, sexual abuse and death in this novel, I didn’t feel like there was any conflict.
In conclusion, the person writing the marketing copy is a much better writer than the person writing this book.