I was thinking of books to recommend for bookclub, and this one came to mind. It’s been a few years since I read it, so I may be a little rusty on some of the details, but the heart of the story has stayed with me over those years and it remains a book I would highly recommend. But be warned – it may be triggering for those of you sensitive to descriptions of physical and sexual abuse, as its central theme is the damage done by the Catholic Church to the other Stolen Generation – the white children shipped to Australia from the 1940’s to the 1970’s as part of the ‘populate or perish’ policy.
Mavis Stevens is a British WWII widow involved with a greedy, abusive bully, Jimmy. When she becomes pregnant, Jimmy uses this as leverage to get rid of her two daughters to her first marriage, Rita and Rosie. In her desperation to have a man, Mavis allows Jimmy to send the girls to an orphanage, omitting the fact that in doing so, she has effectively handed them over to the Church to do with as they see fit. The cruelty of those running church programs is astounding, the lengths they go to to keep Rosie and Rita from Mavis’s mother Lily comes across as much as emotional sadism as to cover their own backsides so their bad behavior doesn’t get found out.
The girls are shipped off to Australia as part of the arrangement between the two countries to populate the ‘colony’ with white children in a bit to stave off the threat of Asian immigrants. History has since judged the consequences of this plan to range somewhere between begin neglect and soul-shattering cruelty and abuse. The Stevens girls fall firmly in the latter camp, and the description of their ordeal is heartbreaking, all the more for how plausible their experiences were, albeit as fictionalized accounts.
(For further reading, I would recommend the nonfiction Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphries, or the movie based on it, Oranges and Sunshine.)
I’ve long advocated the importance of well-researched and written historical fiction as a means of teaching history – I believe Vivien Stuart’s excellent The Australians series should be reprinted, if only to stock in public libraries. The Throwaway Children is an excellent example of this, although I cannot stress enough how dark it can be at times.
My one gripe is how unsympathetically Mavis came across to me. I don’t know if Costeloe intended her to be portrayed so badly or it was her sole major slip-up, but I felt she deserved every last drop of her fate for the way she had tossed away her children for the sake of having a man. Yes, I got the circumstances, yes, I understand how lonely it would have been to be raising two young children in the post-war years, but I felt no empathy for her, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not.
But overall, I highly recommend this book as as well-researched and written insight into one of the darker periods of our history. (Though between the xenophobia and abuse against pretty much every race that wasn’t Anglo, and the natural disasters, it’s not like were short of those…)