A Casualty of Grace is the story of two brothers who become British home children and end up in living in Waterdown, Ontario in the late 1800s. It is a well-researched tale of of the contrasting experiences that two brothers living in the same home experience. It dramatically describes a sad part of Canadian and British history when many children ended up working as indentured help and suffered abuse at the hands of adults.
The Library and Archives Canada website reports that over 100,000 children who were orphaned, abandoned or poor were sent to Canada for a better life. This occurred between 1869 and the 1930s and many were welcomed to Canada as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help. It is reported by the Canada’s History site that 2/3 of the children were not orphaned but actually had family that were too poor to keep them. Many of these children lived in slums with no social support to families that were struggling. Some families had placed their children in temporary care only to learn that they had been shipped to other commonwealth countries.
This novel focuses on the experience of Oliver and Simon who, are grieving the loss of their mother and, set out to find their aunt in the Northern British countryside. Oliver takes on a great deal of responsibility for his little brother but they are unsuccessful in their search and end up living their worst fear, being sent to the dreaded workhouse. From this institution, the boys were shipped to Canada to begin a new life.
It was very interesting to read the historical descriptions of Hamilton, where the boys originally stayed while waiting for placement. The street names and geographical descriptions are familiar yet it is easy to picture the time before cars. The reader can easily imagine the local terrain as Oliver was transported via cart from Hamilton to Waterdown.
Despite promises that the brother would stay together, the boys were separated with Simon being sent to a family and Oliver placed on a farm. On the farm, Oliver was worked from dawn to dusk by the abusive, drunken patriarch. He milked the cows, harvested the orchards and tended the chickens. Mrs. Pritchard was kind and tried to shelter him yet was dealing with her own domestic abuse. She did what she could to try and make things easier preparing healthy meals, caring for his wounds and ensuring he had warm clothes for the Canadian winter.
Like many home children, Oliver and Simon had many challenges and hardships through their childhood. Despite this difficulty, the novel ends with a peaceful epilogue. This final chapter describes a day in 1925 when Oliver’s family is celebrating together. Despite the loss, abuse and days of toiling on the farm, there is a happy ending for the brothers.
A Casualty of Grace has peaked my interest in Home Children and I am looking forward to speaking with Lisa Brown this week when she attends our book club. She has described the sad treatment of these children in a very visual way and I look forward to hearing more about her research and writing process. This is a topic that should be included in Canadian history curriculum and would be a great book for students to discuss.