Orphans of the Queen
by Ruth Starke
Published by Lothian Books
176 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
In Australia, the issue of the Aboriginal "stolen generation" who were removed from their parents and sent to church-run orphanages or adopted by white families has been an important part of the national agenda for some time. Less well-known, though it is coming to light now, is the fact that there was also a white "stolen generation:" British children brought to Australia in the 1950s and also placed in church institutions. They were mainly brought from British orphanages -- though some of them weren't actually orphans -- under the impression that Australia would be a better life for them, a chance to start afresh in a warm, pleasant country where they could go live on farms, be well fed and, hopefully, be adopted. Instead, they often found themselves in the care of brothers and nuns, siblings separated from each other and treated harshly, even abused. Some were trained as domestic servants. All these facts are gradually being revealed as the victims are testifying against those who abused them. No doubt the intentions were benign, but we all know what's paved with good intentions.
Orphans of The Queen is fiction, but what happens to the children in the story isn't. It's just an example of the sort of things that did happen. The author's afterword says that not much is invented. Being a novel, of course, it has to have at least one event that probably wouldn't happen. In this case, it's the heroine's encounter with the young Elizabeth II (shades of the films The Mudlark and The Little Princess ?). It does help to make this a good story, though.
In 1952, Hilly Lyon and her young brother Gregory (Egg) are brought to Australia by ship, along with other children from their orphanage, believing that they will be adopted out, live on farms and pluck fruit straight from the trees. After postwar Britain, with its cold climate and rationing, it seems like heaven. By the time they reach Fremantle in Western Australia -- their first stop -- Hilly realizes they have been lied to: Egg is taken away with the other boys. Hilly has no idea where he has gone and is told not to ask questions. The orphanage in Adelaide is the next shock. It is run by nuns whose discipline is harsh, who take away all the children's personal possessions, including clothes and beloved toys and make them work most of the day, only giving them a minor, grudging education. Government money meant to be spent on the children is held back from them.
Hilly has always been a well-behaved girl who refuses to break the rules, but she comes to realize that sometimes rules need breaking and a little rebellion is good for the soul. Her new friend, Meggie, helps her and, after she has gained the respect of the other girls, they all aid in her efforts to find out what has happened to her brother. The Queen is head of the Commonwealth, isn't she? Why not go straight to the top? Hilly writes a letter, which she manages to smuggle out. There's a reply, but when nothing further has happened and the Queen is going to tour Australia, Hilly realizes that something more needs doing and, with the help of her friends, does it.
Ruth Starke is a fine writer. She makes you want to weep for these children, but at the same time, the novel is not short of humor, such as when a night raid to recover locked-up toys results in a nun thinking she's seeing a vision. Australia in the 1950s is well-described. The characters are likable and believable. The ending is happy but believable. It doesn't end with Hilly and her brother reunited, but she knows where he is and that she can eventually find him again.
This novel is different from Ruth Starke's other work, but the quality is as high. It should be enjoyed by children in late primary school. | January 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.