Hope survives the pain
Fairbridge children. Photo: Vikki Leone
I often wonder what my mother's childhood would have been like. As one of 10,000 child migrants who came out from England in the 1940s and '50s, she was only six when her mother put her on a boat to Australia with the hope of a new life in the ''promised land''. She was settled at Fairbridge Farm, near Molong, in country NSW, and was to stay there for the next 11 years. She was almost 16 before she first slept on a pillow.
Yet, she has fond memories of her childhood. It was the only life she knew, she says, with memories of trips to the coast, sports carnivals and horse riding.
But of course you're not going to talk to your own children, even if they are now adults, about the loneliness and abuse and long nights as an eight-year-old - nights that didn't start with a cuddle and a story and a mother's arms. There are some things children don't need to know. There are some things children don't need to endure.
Author Robert Dinsdale. Photo: Philippa Gedge
Robert Dinsdale was backpacking in Western Australia about 10 years ago when he met up with some child migrants, men and women now well into their 50s and 60s. During the research for his first book, Three Miles, he had come across some references about children from Leeds who had been part of the child migrant scheme and it piqued his interest. Only when he started talking to these adults about their lives as children did he start investigating further.
''It was only once I started to do some digging when you realise what a deep and resounding experience it had been and one that had never been explored in fiction before,'' says Dinsdale, a softly spoken man, on the telephone from the north of Yorkshire.
''I read the memoirs of [former ABC chairman] David Hill [who spent three years at Fairbridge before being reunited with his mother and brothers] and Margaret Humphreys [the British social worker whose investigations in to the Home Children immigration scheme led to the establishment of the Child Migrant Trust] and they were bitter.
''You almost had to read them in snatches, you got so angry at the experience being recounted. I thought a novel that could explore that would be a really interesting thing.''
Dinsdale's Little Exiles is just that. As I read it, I dog-eared corners, phrases that were familiar to me, terms such as ''cottage mother'', and ''boys to be farmers and girls to be farmers' wives'' jump out of the text. But what Dinsdale captures is the certain loneliness that I know stays with these children right throughout their lives.
Jon Heather is proud to be nearly nine. It's Christmas, 1948, and one evening, no longer able to cope, his mother leaves him by a door at the home of the Children's Crusade. Several weeks later, still believing his mother is coming back for him, Jon finds himself on a boat set for Australia. Little Exiles follows Jon Heather and the boys he meets into adulthood - their experiences on the farm, as they leave it, as they try to fit in into regular society as adults.
It's not a cheery novel, but I agree with Dinsdale when he says he hopes it's still a story full of hope.
''I didn't want to write a damning book,'' he says. ''I hope there is something uplifting in the novel.
''Yes, the children go through such a particular experience, but this book is less about the physical or sexual abuse, it's about the psychological abuse, the sense of not having a family and not being able to define who you are.
''In the book Jon can't define who he is, or what he is, but I do hope there's something uplifting at the end … where he makes a stand of sorts and says, 'Yes, these things have been done to me but I can draw a line and I can aspire to be what I want to be.' ''
The long-term effects on the children involved in the migration scheme are only starting to come to light. In 2008 I interviewed Hill about his memoir The Forgotten Children. I told him the chapter that resonated with me the most was the one entitled Legacy, which talked about how the experience had affected the children in later life.
I remember my own mother, in the heat of a spat with her moody teenage daughter, yelling at me: how should she know how to be a mother when she never had one of her own? In Hill's book he talks to Gwen Miller, who I knew when I was a child, and she says ''My children missed out on the most important thing in a child's life … I didn't know how to show them I loved them, apart from when they were babies … I didn't kiss them and cuddle them enough as they were growing up.''
All of the boys in the book struggle to form relationships, with partners, with their children.
''The whole of life, Cormac Tate says, is about leaving one family behind and finding another - and filling those years in the middle as best you can. For boys like he once was - like Jon Heather and Pete are now - that gulf is wide and deep as the ocean. Not for them the easy glide from mother's bosom to girl-next-door and wedding day. You cannot be wrenched from one family and be expected to land, sure-footed, in another.''
Dinsdale talks about research done at the University of WA into the forgotten children. ''There's a number of people who have scholarly research into what the effects of this have been,'' he says.
''If you look at the statistics there's a disproportionate number of people who've been through this experience then left their family, or fallen into trouble with the law for domestic abuse. There's a statistical skew towards dysfunction for people who had gone through this as children. It's a terrible thing to look at the progression there.
''A lot of people would tell you the patterns you build up in childhood are hard to break out of; not having a traditional pattern you don't know what world to inhabit.'' At its core, Little Exiles is about the friendship of the boys, how experience has shaped that. My mother's dearest friends are still girls she went to Fairbridge with. Girls who were there, girls she laughed with, cried with, played with, hid with. If there is a sense of family in Little Exiles, it is this.
■ Little Exiles, by Robert Dinsdale. (HarperCollins, $29.99.)