17 July 2016
Scramble the letters and you get LONE - the underlying theme of this book being the loneliness and isolation perpetrated on a child unwittingly thrust into the arms of the social welfare system. But don't let this put you off, because it is a really good read. Good story, great character in little Leon and written with such love and tenderness.
Leon is nine years old. He lives with his drug addict mother Carol and baby half brother Jake. Carol is white, Leon's absent father is black, Jake's married father is white, also absent. A mess of mammoth proportions in the making. Carol is increasingly incapable of caring for the children and Leon is thrust into the role of parent until, unsurprisingly, everything falls apart. Jake and Leon are taken into care, to the most wonderful arms of Maureen, long time foster parent with expert intuition in caring for damaged children such as Leon. Unfortunately for Leon, no one wants to adopt mixed race 9 year old boys, but a white year old baby boy is a different story, and it isn't long before, tragically, the two children are separated. For Leon, life goes from bad to worse, angry, confused, alone, completely lost and distraught. By chance he finds an allotment in the neighbourhood and befriends a number of the people who garden there. His new friends have their own problems and he slowly finds himself drawn into their world, without really understanding what it is all about. Leon is a most endearing child, intelligent, wanting to please, loving and responsive - just a normal average little boy wanting to live in a family with a mum, dad and brother. Such a simple want, so impossibly hard to achieve.
Set in the early 1980s, against the background of Charles and Di's wedding, suburban race riots, Margaret Thatcher's economic policies, and a social welfare system simply unable to cope with what it is tasked with, this book will break your heart. Told entirely from Leon's point of view, he is trying to make sense of the turns his life takes - losing his brother, unable to understand what is wrong with his mother, hating the social workers controlling his life, but unable to escape it. His story will be similar to the stories of many, many other children.
The author writes her story with plenty of first hand experience of being mixed race herself, growing up in a household where her Irish mother fostered many children, working in social services for a time where one of her jobs was to look at the experiences of black children who had been fostered to white foster parents, and the foster system as a whole. Apparently separating siblings was very common in the 1980s. I wonder how many tears she cried while writing this, although the book is written with an undertone of anger and rage at the system.
This book should be absolutely compulsory reading for anyone involved in the care of children and families in the social services/justice system. Written with such insight, compassion and tenderness, it puts the child at the top of the care model. Here in New Zealand we are constantly having paraded before us in the media on a weekly basis children who have been maltreated, abused, neglected, killed, passed around from foster carer to foster carer, chucked out on their 18th birthdays to fend for themselves. It is disgraceful.