Listen to the Child

Written by Elizabeth Howard
Review by Edward James

MisLit – stories of unhappy childhoods – has become such a popular genre that entire shelves are devoted to it in the larger bookshops and this is beginning to be reflected in historical fiction. Listen to the Child is about hundreds of unhappy childhoods, focusing on just six.

About 1870 several children’s charities in Britain, first of all in London and later elsewhere, began to place orphaned and abandoned children with families in Canada. Thousands of children crossed the Atlantic in this way until the Canadian government stopped it in the 1930s, because so many children were used as cheap or unpaid labour under harsh conditions. A similar scheme with Australia lasted until 1967.

Howard describes the origins of the scheme, seen through the eyes of two social workers. We see the dreadful lives that many children endured in London and follow six of them to the even worse experiences most of them had in Canada. It was a way to Hell paved by the very highest intentions. The deprivation and cruelty is so extreme that it borders on melodrama. To have one of the children washed overboard by a freak wave seems over the top in every sense.

This is a short book but emotionally very intense. The world it describes seems so distant to our own. We would not treat children like this now, but we did within the memory of many of us alive today.