The House Children
by Heidi Daniele
Mary Margaret Joyce belongs to no one. And no one belongs to her.
The night she was rescued from a shuttered barn by the friendly face of a young woman she vaguely knew, Mary was sure she’d finally found what she yearned for most in the world – family. The young woman who scooped her up was kind, the words she whispered were calming and easily whisked Mary’s fears away in the wind.
She felt comfortable in the young woman’s home, no matter the cutting looks the woman’s parents threw her way. The young woman and her sisters seemed happy to have her their, their soft hands making sure that Mary’s hair was devoid of any tangles, their brush strokes loving and tender as they dressed her like a doll.
But it wasn’t long before the picture shattered like a glass shoved from a table, leaving Mary sadly gazing from the rear window of a car as it made its way down the long, lonely lane. As the image of the kind young woman and her sisters huddled on the front porch grew smaller and smaller, Mary grew more despondent. Where was she going? Had she not been good enough to stay? Was she worth nothing?
Peg. Her new name.
27. The number she is identified by.
Mary is transformed into one of the House Children, nothing but a number in a line of other numbers. Nothing but a sad girl in a room full of other sad girls. Her new home one with cold floors and stark surroundings, devoid of the warmth that comes with love and affection. The industrial school is run by a pack of nuns, and Mary/Peg will soon find that there is no comfort to be found in their arms.
Within her first few weeks in the industrial school, Peg learns a few key lessons. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t cry. Be wary when making friends. Don’t wet the bed, even in your sleep. Don’t expect anything more for your life than poverty and destitution. Don’t ever hope for a future anything more than becoming someone’s maid or cleaning bedpans at the hospital. House Children are throwaways. They are dispensable, and the fact that Mary has been forced to rid herself of even her own name is irrefutable evidence to that fact. They were unwanted from birth, and they are unwanted now.
She makes a few friends, a few allies – and she finds a few dim rays of sunlight to cling to. Peg’s uncanny intelligence does not go unnoticed, and as the months go by, she is called upon by the Sisters to perform special tasks. This special treatment does not go unnoticed by the other House Children, bringing with it a cultivated spread of jealousy and cruelty that Peg cannot avoid.
Deep down, Peg does her best to shut the shadows out … no matter how difficult it is, no matter the things she bears witness to. The tasks she is assigned hold their own brand of encouragement, but nothing is better than the day Peg is told she will be spending one week of the summer on holiday. It’s a curious invitation, and one that the other girls in the school are immediately suspicious of.
When Peg steps off the train at the station, her eyes slowly come to focus amidst the lingering smoke and swirling dust. When it all settles, she sees one thing. One person, standing … her expression hopeful and kind. It is the young woman from Peg’s early childhood, the one who saved her.
As the years pass slowly by, Peg spends a week each summer with the Hanley family, watching pensively as it grows from just Norah and her amiable husband to a son and then a baby daughter. The week is one that she initially spends the entire year looking forward to. It begins full of trips to the beach with friends, long afternoons on the playground, visits to the sweet shop, and a choice of ribbons for her hair. But as Peg grows older, she realizes the precarious situation she is in; as one of the House Children, she is illegitimate. She is essentially a sin, with no hope for redemption, even if the sin was not of her own making. After learning that her mother is indeed the young Mrs. Hanley who takes her in once a year in an attempt to balance her grief and guilt over being forced into giving Peg up, Peg begins to stoke a fire wrought of resentment inside of her. The visits become more stifled and difficult, and Peg struggles to forge her own path.
The saving grace of her annual visits is mostly made up of the growing friendship with Norah’s sisters … exotic imports from America who do their best to evoke hope in Peg. With one aunt in particular comes a nice young man who seems interested in who Peg is as a person, rather than what jobs she can accomplish as a cook or a cleaner. He sees through her illegitimacy to the heart of her, and Peg finds herself even more desperate to find a way out of her situation.
As Peg transitions from young girl into a young adult, she begins to take a realistic stock of her environment and curate dreams for the future. She wants to get out of Ireland and travel to America, a land where she is certain she can find stability and a way to truly shake the stigma of being a House Child. She believes herself capable of receiving an adequate education and takes full advantage of the opportunities at the industrial school that are thrown her way in that regard. Most importantly, Peg begins to realize her own worth and yearns to be in possession of her own destiny, instead of leaving it to the Sisters or Mrs. Hanley to figure out for her.
Under the careful guidance of her aunts and a few well-meaning Sisters, Peg becomes one of the lucky ones. But Peg is never able to forget that she was unwanted, and she never forgets that she is ultimately alone. She must find a way to get out of Ireland and find a way to turn her abandonment in to an opportunity.
Based entirely in Ireland, The House Children is the first novel by Heidi Daniele. The novel is based upon true events surrounding the industrial schools in the area during the 1930’s, and their subsequent effect on their inhabitants. In browsing the author’s biographical blurb, I would be reasonable in assuming that Ms. Daniele found inspiration for her novel throughout her work with organizations involved with underprivileged children.
The novel was thoughtful and well-researched, and a testament that was oftentimes difficult to read due to the injustices afforded the children at the industrial schools. Placed their under no fault or choice of their own, the children were forced to endure horrific conditions and given no opportunity to grow organically or experience anything remotely resembling a childhood. Peg’s voice was oftentimes heartbreakingly despondent, her resentment palpable and her abandonment issues manifesting in realistic and life-changing ways.
The character of Norah Hanley was equally as sorrowful. Forced away and into giving birth in a truly treacherous and despicable environment, the young woman was forced to give her child away and live with the shame of having a child out of wedlock. Norah was lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance to Peg and be able to see her once a year, but the pain involved was no less severe. I often questioned whether it was healthy for the mother and child to see each other each year and rip open the wound, or if it would be more prudent for Norah and Peg to sever all ties and forget about one another … it was an impossible situation, and well-written.
Giving the novel 3 out of 5 stars, my wish is that the story had been a bit more fluid. It read more like a child’s diary than an actual novel. It is, in my opinion, an appropriate novel for ages 13+.