Second-hand Family by Richard Parker


Giles Willis, an orphan who’s been alternating between the orphanage and foster homes several times in the past year, is being taken to yet another foster home: the Maxwells in the inauspiciously named mining town of Haleshangar, not too far from the orphanage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his past recent experience, he’s not too sanguine about this one. His first encounter with the neighborhood and the family would seem to prove him rather than the social worker right. The daughter is surly and recalcitrant, initially not letting them into the house. The father, an ill-looking frail man, seems mild-mannered enough, but does not engage (with) Giles. The older brother slams through, not speaking to the rest of the family, and disappears upstairs to listen to ‘mod’ music. The mother is willing to converse with Mr. Judd, the social worker, but makes it clear she’s appreciative of the money, and calls Giles a “poor lad”. To cap things off, the family housekeeping is abysmal—there are papers strewn everywhere and an old teacup tipped over on the floor, with a mummified stain which was once a puddle of tea—and Giles will have to sleep not just in Martin’s room, but in Martin’s bed. (Don’t worry, this was a kids’ book written in the mid-sixties: nothing untoward happens, other than Martin smoking up a storm and practicing with his British-invasion style grunge band at all hours.)

Despite all this, Giles begins to settle in, and despite all the “wrong foot” encounters of that first day, begins to adjust well. He comes to like his new school. He learns to sleep through the band’s practice sessions. He even convinces the school to allow Martin’s band, the Minors, play in the school auditorium…and it is just at this point that Mr. Maxwell’s tuberculosis flares up and he requires, at first, semi-isolation to protect him from a secondary infection, with the strong possibility of another hospitalization. The administration of The Home decide to pull Giles from the Maxwells’ house, until Mr. Maxwell has returned home. Giles is heart-broken, and ends up sneaking back to the school to attend the Minors’ concert. Several disconsolate days moping about the Home later, however, the family comes to collect him: Mr. Maxwell’s been successfully treated with a new medicine for TB, so they can foster him again. Over the next few weeks, he settles into the family, complete with getting chewed out for leaving dirty laundry stuffed down behind the bed and the Minors dragging him along to a recording session for luck. Once and for all, a permanent home!

This is very much a period piece. The currency’s changed. Fish-and-chip shops can’t wrap orders in newspaper any more, the music popular in this book would be regarded as “grandpappy’s” music by today’s teenagers, and so on. I expect the rules for fostering kids in the U.K. have changed somewhat. I can’t imagine tinned salmon being all that exciting a treat for tea these days, or rather it wouldn’t be for American kids; canned tuna fish is a standard sandwich filling along with peanut butter, but it’s hardly exciting. Two generations of kids later, I’d almost have to suggest that it be read now as a description of a time gone by, when tuberculosis was a problem far more serious than it is today, and speedier transport means its possible to get fresh (non-frozen, un-tinned) salmon. Fun, though. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to kids who like books written in prior generations; it’s still enjoyable to read, though hardly cutting edge, especially for kids who’ve had familial issues–there are many ways to construct a loving family, and they don’t all involve genetically related persons.

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