The Orphanage Girls by Mary Wood
This is the first novel in an exciting new trilogy of novels about life in London in 1910 and in the years leading up to the First World War. Mary Wood is extremely skilled at bringing to life individuals and communities in vivid ways; women who from their earliest years face nearly unthinkable challenges, where actual poverty is a force in their lives, and they have to face the cruelties inflicted by some men. While there are sympathetic characters who do what they can to help, there are also greater forces at work. This particular novel is very ambitious and brave in that it deals with such subjects as the abuse of children and the racism that affected families. It reveals something about the ambitions of young women to change their lives,and the shock of different cultures in London at the time. As sometimes with Mary’s (and her other pen name Maggie Mason’s) books, while official families may have broken down, the main female characters are often fortunate to find new effective families, and in this novel Ruth begins from a fairly anonymous institutional start. She knows nothing of her parents, her origins beyond being found as a baby, and must make her way with the help of friends.
This is a beautifully constructed novel, with the highs and lows of Ruth’s progress well laid out so well that the reader can sympathise with her plight, as well as rejoice with her in her successes. This is a novel which introduces, establishes and maintains characters that are consistent throughout the book. They are varied, from the decidedly evil, through those who are keener to look out for their own interests than take a chance on a stranger, to those who welcome Ruth and others into their lives. There is a terrific variety of people, from staff at the orphanage and big houses, to market traders who are hardened by circumstance, to the homeless and unemployed who accept any help. The lively dialogue that the characters employ gives shape to their personalities, from the cockneys who get by, the kindly Rebekah with her African tones, to the more well off people who make briefer appearances. What people wear is also closely detailed; the shabby and insufficient clothing of the orphans, the bright colours of the African community, the scavenged clothing and headgear of men and boys living off pennies under market stalls. This book is very visually written, with vivid descriptions of people enabling the reader to imagine what the characters look like.
This novel begins with Ruth being left in no doubt as to the abuse of various kinds carried out by staff at Bethnal Green Orphanage. The combination of poor conditions and physical cruelty is life threatening, and it proves difficult to escape. Not that freedom is easy, with no money, shelter and references, Ruth must depend on the kindness of strangers to try to survive. While she meets the redoubtable Bett whose harsh demeanour conceals genuine concern, others are more careless of Ruth’s wellbeing. An older boy, Robbie, bears her company and practical assistance, despite his own bad memories. Their welcome from Rebekah offers more than Ruth and Robbie ever felt possible, but there are those who are actively seeking her, meaning that an orphan on the run is still vulnerable to attack.
This is an enthralling book which truly enveloped me as a reader. It describes challenging circumstances, but also the power of friendship and love when there seems to be little hope left. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and recommend it to fans of female led fiction.