July 11, 2012

Author's Notes - Orphanages

As Big Stone Heart opens we find our heroine, Carrie Smith, in an orphanage.  While the orphanage in the book is fictional - no such orphanage existed in Swede Hollow - orphanages were common all across the country in the nineteenth century.  In our case, this orphanage followed the traditional model of an institution for indigent children: that is, a large building that housed,fed and somewhat educated the children in a regimented atmosphere.

We see Carrie working in the kitchen, the nursery and on the account books of the institution.  Children did most of the work in orphanages and Carrie was no exception. Although the goal was to teach the children useful skills that they could use later in life, most of the work was menial and, as such, did not lead to skilled, high paying jobs.  As we see later in the book, Carrie put the skills she learned in the orphanage to good use: caring for sick children and helping with the account books at the general store.

Orphanages failed miserably at providing the inmates with the love and attention needed to raise an emotionally healthy child.  We see Carrie struggling with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and hopelessness as she tries to make her way in life, a direct result of being institutionalized from birth.  Today, we use foster homes which are believed to be the best method to care for orphaned or abused children. Orphanages have been abandoned.  But, once, orphanages were thought to be the best answer to the problem of indigent children.  We've since learned that they weren't the answer.  Will foster homes go the same way?

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