By Sue Tiffin
A golden retriever might bark and a phone ringing might be stifled under a pillow but members of the Haliburton County Public Library’s book club gather around their devices ready for whatever outside interruptions come their way and ready too for wherever the conversation that day takes them.
Today’s meeting will be a bit out-of-the-ordinary – more so than it has been for the past few months when members have met online via teleconferencing program Zoom rather than in person. Alongside the fairly regular group of seven or so readers on screen is Genevieve Graham best-selling author of Canadian historical fiction including Tides of Honour Promises to Keep and The Forgotten Home Child which the group is gathering to discuss.
Graham has a particular interest in Canadian history and wants to tell more of it. It was only 2017 when she learned about the corrupt British Home Children child migration system that took place between the 1860s and 1948 in which more than 115000 British children were sent to Canada Australia New Zealand and South Africa with many ultimately suffering profound abuse upon arrival. The Forgotten Home Child is inspired by these true tragic events.
Nancy Therrien who is cohosting the meeting with Penni Chalk says she isn’t typically interested in history but that the book made it “palatable.” Cathy McMullen says she knew nothing about the “home children” and found it both shocking and moving connecting to the story in part because one of the settings in the book is Peterborough not too far from here.
“I have a different take on the book” said Jessie Geall. “I enjoyed the book but my mother is a forgotten home child. So because of that I lived through all of this.”
The conversation is different now even more personal and book club members and Graham herself quietly listen to Geall’s experiences and those of her mom who came to Canada at 13 where she was sent from Middlesex by ship as an orphan – despite having a father – to a farm near Flesherton to care for an elderly couple.
“My mother was very short so she said the snow was very high her coat wasn’t very warm she only had little boots” said Geall. “But she had to feed the chickens and feed the pigs look after this couple and scrub the floors and everything. She never talked about abuse but she didn’t talk a whole lot about her time there.”
Geall said her mother’s past wasn’t known to the family as being negative.
“Because she survived and she was very very much a survivor” she said. “She came to Canada in all those circumstances.” She notes that the story and the idea that there are other survivor children out there was of particular interest to her.
Graham said members in the social media groups of Home Children and their surviving family members are quick to be able to connect newcomers with information of their family’s history tracing roots and connecting broken links at record speed.
“Only two per cent of the kids were actual orphans” said Graham.
Jane Adams said she once worked at a psychogeriatric unit where a man had become very depressed finally sharing a story of how he had been a “Barnardo boy” living out west in a shed. Adams said he had always felt too ashamed to tell his story even with his family.
“All those years he’d lived 75 years holding that shame and that sort of silence and it just needed to come out” she said. “He just described a horrific time on the prairies.” Eventually he did share his story with relatives who were supportive lifting a great weight from him. Adams said it had been a “really good thing for him to be able to talk about it with his family.”
Graham picks up a thick binder from off-screen and shows it to the book club members as she describes her research for The Forgotten Home Child.
“All the characters I wrote about everything they experienced was real” she said. “I have this binder and it’s all surveys from descendants. I went through that all and I took the most common…stories – but I put those into these characters so that in a sense they’re not really fictional because they are created out of real.”
The group appreciates that the settings of Graham’s books are Canadian set in places they feel so familiar with and connected to already. There are so many stories to write Graham says.
“I’m most happy to talk about this book because in my heart it’s a very important story for people to learn widely” she adds. “When you think about the four-and-a-half million descendants most of them have no idea about any of this so it’s such an important story. Personally selfishly for me it’s great that the book has done very well but overall I think the butterfly effect of having it spread out and touch so many people that’s what’s made it for me it’s been so important.”
Elly Malcomson says she finds it interesting the topic of the Home Children program isn’t discussed much in school.
“When I went to school which is longer ago than most of you we did learn about it” she says. “I’ve always known but I’ve never known the details. It’s always sort of been out there negatively. In reading the book I found it very sad but also promising for the future of all of these people. They need to be remembered.”
Graham says she’s never had this many letters sent to her in response to one of her books.
“I’ve got all the other books and I hear from people all the time but I’m getting five or six letters a week that are coming in and some of them are so … it is such a responsibility.”
One woman asked for three copies of the book signed for her her sister and a cousin in memory of their grandfather. Their family had experienced years of trauma culminating in addiction as they dealt with what their grandfather had endured. Others tracing their lineage have told her they haven’t known how a family member ended up in Canada by themselves until “all the lights just went on” after reading the book.
Graham said she’s trying to get the topic covered more in the high school curriculum offering to speak to classes about her research and the stories she’s uncovered.
Geall says she recently said to her sister that they didn’t ask their mom enough questions. The other book club members smile and nod at opportunities past.
“You never think [the stories] are interesting when they’re yours” said Graham.
She shows the group a photo of seven-year-old Alice a photo she kept near as she was writing the book.
“She was seven she was told to milk the cows she’d never seen a cow before she had to deal with all those things” said Graham. Alice was moved from farm to farm more than a half-dozen times experiencing physical abuse sexual abuse emotional abuse being told “she was too little to do anything.”
Quinn’s story in her book broke Graham’s heart she said. He was based on a boy named George who was here for seven months before he died working for a widow who didn’t feed or clothe him forced to work in the snow and developing gangrene. His coffin was found buried in a manure pile his body bruised and having suffered trauma by pitchfork.
Some stories were happier – maybe like that of Geall’s mother as far as she knows.
“Overall I think it was an important story to tell” said Graham from her home in the east coast.
“Isn’t this technology wonderful?” asks Geall. “We can all be – I’m in Quebec you’re in Nova Scotia you’re in Ontario and look we’re all chatting.”
“It’s been great for authors” says Graham. “My book came out in March and I had booksellers write to me and say they were just setting up the book display in the windows when they had to lock the doors … Most of us are introverts and pretty much run away from any sort of camera but Zoom has really changed everything for authors … I’ve done a bunch of different visits across Canada on different tours and spoken to people but this way I can talk to lots of people who don’t have to travel forever to try to get to it.”
A mid-afternoon thunderstorm has reminded Catherine Wallis-Smith that her windows are open and she apologetically says goodbye to rush off to close them but the book club meeting is reaching an end anyway and everyone signs off until next time.
To learn more about the books of Genevieve Graham visit: https://genevievegraham.com.
To learn more about the Haliburton County Public Library book club or to join a meeting email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to get the Zoom link – test meetings are available for those who haven’t used Zoom. The next meeting for the Minden Library Book Club is Aug. 26 at 2 p.m. The Wilberforce Book Club also meets via Zoom and the HCPL online book club has a discussion forum on GoodReads.