Orphanages, Adoption, Evacuees and Refugees

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“Orphanages are the only places that ever left me feeling empty and full at the same time.”

John M. Simmons

The Orphanage

Orphanages in fiction tend to be repressive and cruel places, but occasionally the regime is overthrown. There is, for example, the famous scene in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY where Nicholas turns on Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall for beating the disabled Smike. Dotheboys Hall was loosely based on the Bowes Academy, a private school for 200 boys run by William Shaw, which Charles Dickens visited on 2nd February 1838. The publication of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY exposing the appalling conditions in such schools led to a public outcry and subsequently many such schools, including the Bowes Academy, were forced to shut down.


In the X-MEN, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, there’s a special school for gifted (and often orphaned) children run by the kind and benevolent Professor X (Charles Francis Xavier), who lost his own his father when he was young. Professor X founded the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (later named the Xavier Institute) to teach mutants to explore and control their powers.

Among the first group of students was Cyclops. Cyclop’s back story is a complex one. When he, Scott, was a boy, his father, Major Christopher Summers, took the family for a flight that then came under attack by an alien Shi’ar spaceship. As the plane went down in flames, Scott’s parents fastened him and his younger brother Alex into a parachute and pushed them off the plane, hoping that they would survive, a plot point many will recognise as not that dissimilar to Superman’s origins. Scott then spent most of his childhood at the State Home for the Foundlings in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was subjected to vile experiments on his body by the orphanage’s owner, Mr Milbury (alias the geneticist Mister Sinister). However, when he’s sixteen, Scott goes on trip to New York and it’s here that his optic beam activates for the first time. Scott unintentionally causes a metal crane to fall and runs away. Luckily for him, he is found by Charles Xavier who then asks Scott to join him and the X-Men at the special school, which Scott gladly agrees to.

It’s worth going into the detail here because it is in the detail that it’s possible to see a number of reoccurring orphan story tropes. Sudden death of parents. The cruel orphanage. The sense of difference. Becoming a runaway. The rescue by the good benefactor.

A later member to join the X-Men is Wolverine, whose real name is James Howlett. Wolverine’s back story is very complicated but in short, James Howlett was supposedly the son of rich farm owners John and Elizabeth Howlett, but was in fact the illegitimate son of the Howletts’ groundskeeper, Thomas Logan. Thomas after being thrown off the Howletts’ estate later returns and kills John Howlett. In retaliation, young James kills Thomas with bone claws that emerge from the back of his hands when his mutation suddenly manifest itself. After fleeing, Logan, as he now calls himself, accidentally kills Rose with his claws and he again runs away. Later Wolverine/Logan joins Professor Xavier and his super-hero mutant team.

Again there are reoccurring orphan story tropes. Illegitimacy. Revelation of true birth father. Inner turmoil and outward exploration of anger and violence. Different to Scott/Cyclops but nevertheless these are features of orphans found elsewhere in other stories.

Talk to those who have been brought up in the institutionalised care sector and they will tell you how they have a unique relationship with the X-MEN mythology. What resonates is the often powerless anger. The sense of being different to people around them in the outside world. The grateful feeling when rescued by those who take them in. And yet the knowledge that there are deep psychological scars that cannot easily be hidden and will never probably disappear.

“A door without a knocker should keep its peace; a fatherless child does not fight an unjust fight.”

Yoruba Proverb

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‘Everyone can see we’re together
As we walk on by
(And) and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie
all of the people around us they say
Can they be that close
Just let me state for the record
We’re giving love in a family dose
We are family (hey, y’all)
I got all my sisters with me.’

The song We Are Family by Sister Sledge

Identity and Belonging

Having a childhood family, a community and a geographical place of birth offers stability and security. But with constancy comes expectations. Family expectations. Social expectations. Educational expectation. Political expectations. In short, identity expectations.

But where are those expectations and peer pressure if you have no history, no culture and no geography? Well, they are nowhere and nothing. Instead you are free to forge your own identity, take your own journey and become your own person. With no past your future can be whatever you want it to be. And with no patriarch or matriarch telling you who you should be, you have the ultimate freedom to become who and what you will.

And yet, and yet, and yet. We are needful human creatures. We long for belonging. And in a way, part of who we are as human beings is formed by those we find ourselves drawn to and want to be with. And these people we call them ‘family’, even if our DNA has little in common.

“There’s a voice in the lonesome wind
Keeps a whispering roam
I’m going where a welcome mat is
No matter where that is
‘Cause any place I hang my hat is home.’

Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer

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“Family is not who’s blood is in you, it’s who you love and who love you.”

Jackie Chan

Fostered and Adopted

Quasimodo. James Bond. Tracy Beaker. Dorothy Gale. Gamora. Estella Havisham. Beth Harmon. Billy Batson. Nightcrawler. Bamm-Bamm Rubble. Anne Shirley. Matilda Wormwood. These are just some of the characters from literature, animation and comic books who were adopted or fostered. Of course the great gift of both adopting and fostering is that it shows that love transcends the bloodline.

Fostering is the premise of HOME AND AWAY, the popular Australian soap drama. The series, created by Alan Bateman, was originally going to be titled Refuge but the softer title of HOME AND AWAY prevailed. Bateman is said to have come up with the idea for the dram when he discovered the locals in Kangaroo Point were worried about the construction of a new foster home in the area. The drama now follows the lives of residents of Summer Bay, a fictional seaside town in New South Wales, but initially the series concentrated on the Fletcher family, Tom and Pippa, and their five foster children. Even in its early days, the series covered many controversial topics such as alcohol addiction, drug use and attempted suicide.

Over the years, one of the best known storylines featured an orphan character called Sally Fletcher, played by Kate Ritchie. In her very young childhood back story, explained but unseen by the viewer, Sally Fletcher is said to have lived with her alcoholic father. His abuse of their mother Diana resulted in her leaving him but when Diana and her new husband were killed in a boating accident, Sally was taken in by their grandmother, only later the grandmother developed Alzheimer’s Disease. It was then that the young Sally was fostered by the Fletcher family. In early episodes the child Sally would often talk about an imaginary friend she called Milco, but it is revealed many years later when Sally has grown up that this was actually her twin brother Miles who was not adopted into the Fletcher family. Soap writers often refer to instances where there is a setup for a future storyline years ahead as ‘buried treasure’. And the orphan Sally’s imaginary friend in reality being her lost twin is a perfect example.


There are many stories where orphan children are adopted or just ‘taken in’. Tobias Ragg, for example, who the Victorians would have called a simpleton, becomes a helper to Mrs Lovett in her pie shop in SWEENEY TODD. In THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo, Tom Hagan, who Vito Corleone’s eldest son Santino befriends when the finds the eleven year old living on the streets after running way from an orphanage, has been informally adopted into the Corleone family. Hagan considers Vito to be his father but Vito never formally adopts Tom, for, according to his own moral code, that would be disrespectful to Hagen’s deceased parents. Still, Tom Hagan rises in the Corleone family to eventually become the family lawyer.

And let’s not forget Doctor Who, the Time Lord who over his many years has taken in a few orphan strays, including Viki, a twenty-fifth  century orphan who featured in two series in 1965, and Victoria Waterfield, one of the youngest ever companions, a Victorian girl aged around fourteen years old who was made an orphan by her mother’s early death and the murder of her father by the Daleks.

But be warned, not all benefactors mean you well. Those who take you in may themselves be emotionally damaged and if that becomes their legacy to you, then you really are in trouble. Take Miss Havisham. Mad or bad? And dangerous to know? Miss Havisham was betrayed by someone she loved, but instead of overcoming grief she lived her life locked in time. Not exactly dead but certainly rotting. That would be tragic enough but Miss Havisham, whose bitterness has given her a strong iron will, then takes in the orphaned Estella with a plan to turn her into something cold and unfeeling. Miss Havisham tells Pip to “Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger – it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her! … I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!” Really? But what sort of love is it that is ‘bred’? And isn’t the truth that Miss Havisham brought Estella up to and entrap Pip and break his heart? Her own love was wrecked and her life work became to destroy it in others.  And that’s as cruel as one can ever become.

“Orphans are the only ones who get to choose their fathers, and they love them twice as much.”

Adam Johnson

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‘I always keep a marmalade sandwich under my hat, just in case.’

Paddington Brown, the character created by Michael Bond

Paddington Bear

It is sometimes said that Michael Bond was inspired to create Paddington Bear after spotting by a lonely teddy on a shelf a London store near Paddington Station. That was in 1956. Others though have suggested that perhaps somewhere in his subconscious mind were the many images he would have seen of railways stations packed with London evacuees with brown tags on their way to the safety of the countryside or Jewish child refugees who had been somehow smuggled out of Nazi occupied Europe.

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Paddington arrives from ‘Darkest Peru’ as a stowaway, though a less kind term nowadays would be ‘illegal immigrant’. He too where a tag and it simply says, ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ Paddington’s history is that he was taken in by his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo after his parents died in an earthquake, but now they have gone to live in a Home for Retired Bears in Lima. Delving too far into the psychology of fictitious bear who is anyway a naïve innocent is a fool’s journey, yet it’s at least possible to think that the story of the retirement home is what Paddington now chooses to believe rather than the darker reality (compare perhaps the character and mind of Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel in Yann Martel’s LIFE OF PI). Yes, there’s something very charming about Paddington’s politeness, always addressing people as Mister, or Miss or Missus, and the fact that it’s his kind heartedness that so often gets him into trouble –he’s a classic ‘Innocent Abroad’ character – and yet this apparent inability to see the bad in people, or even their calculated and wicked actions, has its roots somewhere. And then there’s his habit of keeping a marmalade sandwich under his hat ‘just in case’. Even years after being settled in friendly countries and with a full larder at home, refugees are known to always carry bread with them on even the shortest trips, for the fear of that pain of hunger they experienced on their long journey to their new land. Maybe though with Paddington it’s best, as it were, to let sleeping bears lie, and love him for the pure innocent he is clearly is. That’s what the Brown family did. What the dark truth of his past, Paddington now lives in the happiest of homes.

‘I think I may paint a family portrait today… That is, if I have enough paint left over for all the smiles.’

Paddington Brown in PADDINGTON’S ART EXHIBITION, by Michael Bond

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“A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.”

The Book of Jeremiah, chapter 31, verse 15, The King James Version

Evacuees and Refugees

Evacuee stories and refugee tales can be very powerful dramatically and it’s easy to see why. There’s separation and parting, the long journey, a new world discovered and the slow adaptation to it. Some of the children in these stories have lost their parents, others have been sent away primarily for their own safety. It is true they may not be orphans as such but again in story terms these children take on the orphan role.

Take two Second World War evacuee novels, THE LION AND THE UNICORN by Shirley Hughes and WAVE ME GOODBYE by Jacqueline Wilson. In Hughes’s novel, Lenny is evacuated to the countryside after his father is drafted and there he meets a wounded soldier and begins to understand the true meaning of what it is to be brave. In Wilson’s book, the ten-year-old Shirley is told she is going on a ‘little holiday’ but in fact she is being evacuated to the countryside. Eventually Shirley is billeted at the grand Red House with the strange and reclusive Mrs Waverley. Shirley is initially disturbed by her new environment in the county, a place where rabbits are shot and put in pies, but children are resilient and she learns to adapt to her new world.

CARRIE’S WAR by Nina Bawden also tells an evacuee story, except this book is framed by the older Carrie, now a widow, visiting the town she was billeted in and then telling her own children what happened there thirty years before.

Given the present situation in the world, with an estimated sixty million people displaced by war, famine and hostile political regimes, books featuring stories of refugees have become an important element in a child’s understanding of modern life. Such books range from picture stories for very young children (THE SILENCE SEEKERS by Ben Morley with illustrations by Carl Pearce; THE DAY WAR CAME by Nicola Davies with illustrations by Rebecca Cobb) to tale aimed at children in the Middle Grade age group (IN THE SEA THERE ARE CROCODILES by Fabio Geda; AZZI IN BETWEEN by Sarah Garland; THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS by Onjali Q Raúf) and novels for teenagers (THE ONES THAT DISAPPEARED by Zana Fraillon; THE JUNGLE by Pooja Puri). And there are historical stories too, for example, the Second World War tale ONCE by Morris Gleiszma, which offers a stark insight into the life a young Jewish boy called Felix who escapes his mountain orphanage and then tries to track down his parents.

‘You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land’

From the poem Home by Warsan Shire, a Somali-British writer and poet

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granny and william

Young Adult Reader Reviews

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