Orphanage Boys by A N Arthur.
Feilding: Rangitawa Publishing (2016).
RRP: $38. Pb, 383pp.
Reviewed by Brenda Allen.
A N Arthur’s Orphanage Boys is an historical novel that imagines the life of two real people, Jimmy (b. 1890) and his older brother Samuel, who lived with their parents in Nelson. In 1897, after their mother died in childbirth, their father, Fraser, left the boys at the Stoke Orphanage where the monks’ rule is reputed to have been absolute and without empathy. The boys remained at the orphanage until they ran away about four years later, their departure coinciding with the fire that destroyed the Stoke Orphanage and possibly claimed the life of one of the inmates. Although few such historical records survive, available details form the skeletal outline of the plot.
The story proceeds in chronological order from the boys’ early childhood with their parents, through their years in the Stoke Orphanage, the fire finding work and Jimmy’s later political activism. The pathos of the novels comes from loss. Firstly, Frazer loses his ability to work, then the boys’ mother and the longed-for baby die. The boys lose their home and their father: letters Fraser writes to the boys while they are in the orphanage never reach their intended readers. Later, the boys lose touch with each other, only reuniting after years of wondering and missing each other.
As well as the boys and the fire, Jimmy’s growing social consciousness crosses the fact/fiction border. Records show that he travelled to Waihi, a gold mining town in the eastern reaches of the Waikato province, to talk to the workers about socialism and about the value of unionising to protect workers. Some of these 1913 events are represented in epistolary form, combining friendly chat with political opinion. Issues raised include the harsh treatment by the police who rode roughshod over men, women and children in their bid to quell what one side called a riot, and what the other suggests is the result of infiltration by anti-union agitators. Like the monks in Stoke, 1913 employers have great power over their workers but are not required to pay a living wage or consider what is fair, just, or safe practice.
Treatment of the historical persons is at all times respectful. For instance, the novel avoids the innuendo that followed the fire. As late as the 1950s I heard people speculate, in hushed voices that children were not supposed to hear, about whether the runaways had lit the fire, about the abuses perpetrated by the monks, and about whether and how an inmate could have perished. The author consistently shows the reader the vulnerability of orphans and the persistence of innocence even after it has been fractured by grief, hunger and ill treatment. In the latter part of the novel I felt an occasional thinness of characterisation that emulates the way it was, not only for Jimmy and Samuel, but also for most working class New Zealanders. That thinness gives continuation of the respectful treatment of the historical men on which the characters are based and mirrors our general understanding of the lives of our ancestors at that time.
Brenda Allen studied, taught and published essays about narrative texts (including films) at the University of Auckland Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau. She retired in 2016 and now lives in Waihi where she reads, gardens and thinks about writing something in the near future.