The Only Blue Door by Joan Fallon
Joan Fallon’s historical novel,The Only Blue Door, was so intense and riveting that I found it hard to put down, except when anger coursed through me.
The British Children’s Resettlement Program during WWII sent thousands of children away from the bombings in London for their own safety. Many were well cared for and happy. Yet a surprisingly large number of children, without parents’ permission or even knowledge, were told their parents were dead, and sent away to orphanages in Australia that were little more than deplorable workhouses that kept children in unhealthy, unsafe conditions and forced sexual, physical and emotional abuse on many in their legal custody.
I wanted to cry out, “But you're supposed to be the good guys!”
But they weren’t, they weren’t.
The novel concerns itself with the fictional East End London Smith family with 3 children, Maggie, Billy and Grace, who were sent away to Australian Catholic orphanages after a devastating German bombing. They were mislabeled orphans and instead of the care promised them, they were placed in cruel and abusive institutions. Much of the novel, without giving too much away, concerns mother and children trying to find each other. Scottish author Joan Fallon said to me, “I was amazed, not only that such a thing could happen in Britain but also that it had been kept secret for so many years.”
Joan creates strong female characters in her novels and their strength is tried repeatedly. “I think that many women can find the inner strength to battle against the circumstances in which they find themselves. Where does it come from? Maybe from frustration, maybe from anger, maybe from a sense of injustice.” This is certainly true in the case of Maggie and her mother, Irene.
The British and Australian governments finally acknowledged what had occurred. They apologized, offered restitution and opened investigations. The BBC reported about one former Bindoon, an Australian “farm school, ” resident Clifford Walsh, who stated, "They sent us to a place that was a living hell. How come they didn't know that? Why didn't they investigate? And if they investigated, then they were incompetent or there was a cover-up."
As reported in The Guardian in 2009, Australia’s Prime Minister Kein Rudd made an apology to the estimated 500,00 children who were held in orphanages and other institutions between 1930 and 1970. Some were foreign born and others, aboriginal children. "We are sorry," Rudd said. "Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy the absolute tragedy of childhoods lost."
The sheer heartlessness of the institutions and government is balanced in The Only Blue Door by the remarkable kindness that Maggie and Billy find in the ordinary people of Australia, from rural to urban folks, and a wonderful and heartwarming glimpse at the Pintupi (aborigine) community and culture.
Based on actual events, this war story focuses on what happened to parents and children when London neighborhoods were destroyed by the Nazi bombings, and the havoc and anguish resulting in helpless civilian populations and the cruelty of institutional staff with unchecked authority. Ultimately, we see not only tragedy, but strength, ingenuity and love growing in Maggie and Billy. For them and their mother, at least, the human spirit triumphs.
Billy finds remarkable kindness in the older couple Henry and Sarah, who come to regard him as their son. The apple pie Sarah makes reminds Billy of his home in England and his new home in Australia. Sarah's Apple Pie, is warm and comforting and sweet, as good apple pie should be.