At ninety-seven years old, Winnifred Ellis knows she doesn’t have much time left and it is almost a relief to realize that once she is gone, the truth about her shameful past will die with her. But when her great-grandson, Jamie, the spitting image of her dear late husband, asks about his family tree, Winnifred can’t lie any longer, even if it means breaking a promise she made so long ago.
Fifteen-year-old Winny has never known a real home. After running away from an abusive stepfather, she falls in with Mary, Jack and their ragtag group of friends roaming the streets of Liverpool. When the children are caught stealing food, Winny and Mary are left in Dr. Barnardo’s Barkingside Home for Girls, a local home for orphans and forgotten children found in the city’s slums. At Barkingside, Winny learns she will soon join other boys and girls in a faraway place called Canada, where families and better lives await them.
But Winny’s hopes are dashed when she is separated from her friends and sent to live with a family that has no use for another daughter. Instead, they have paid for an indentured servant to work on their farm. Faced with this harsh new reality, Winny clings to the belief that she will someday find her friends again.
In the mid-1930s, Winny, Mary, Jack, Edward and Cecil are children living in the streets in London. Their families couldn't afford to support them and rather than be abused or put in orphanages, the alternative was to take to the streets and do whatever they could to eat. The five of them are eventually rounded up and put in orphanages and then in Barnardo Homes. After a couple years, when they are in the early to mid-teens, they are put on a boat along with hundreds of other children and sent to Canada as "Home Children". It's positioned as a great opportunity for them as families in Canada will be taking them in.
Once they arrive, they discover that they are basically slaves living on farms, helping the poor farmers who saw this as a cheap way to get labour. Jack, Edward and Cecil end up on a farm in the London, Ontario, area working for an abusive man who beat them for no reason. Winny and Mary end up on different farms near Peterborough, Ontario. Winny's mistress expects her to do many chores, sleep in a barn with the sheep and she is always hungry. Mary lives in a shed on her mistress' property and is responsible for taking care of the children. This is not what the Barnardo organization had promised but no one if following up.
Despite the subject matter, I liked this book ... though I did find it wrapped up rather quickly with a happy ending. I've read other books about home children and the author does a good job letting us know what life was like for them. I liked the writing style. It bounces back and forth from present day with 98-year-old Winny finally telling her story to her granddaughter and great grandson to beginning with when Winny, Mary, Jack, Edward and Cecil are children on the streets, how they came to be home children, their life in Canada and what they did once they were able to leave their masters. It is written in third person perspective in Winny and Jack's voices ... the chapters are noted with the dates and voices.
The story is based on true experiences of home children. There is a chapter at the end providing some history about what home children programs were all about. It's hard to believe that until the late 1940s, up to 130,000 British children between the ages of three and eighteen were taken from England's streets, orphanages and homes and shipped to Canada, Australia and other countries. Many were told that their parents had passed away or didn't want them anymore, which wasn't always true. While some children did benefit from the arrangement, most didn't and were beaten and abused. In 2017, a monument was erected in Park Lawn Cemetery here in Toronto honoring home children who are buried there.