Category: Based on Fact, Psychological, Historical, Book Review
London 1962. A strict and loveless English children’s home, or the promise of Australian sunshine, sandy beaches and eating fruit straight from the tree. Which would you choose?
Ten-year-old Lucy Rivers and her five-year-old sister Charly are thrilled when a child migrant scheme offers them the chance to escape their miserable past.
But on arrival in Sydney, the girls discover their fantasy future is more nightmare than dream.
The story begins in January 1962 when Lucy and Charly Rivers’ father comes home drunk, as he often does, and a fall leaves him dead at the bottom of the stairs. Their mother, who was out at the time, was charged with his murder and the sisters were sent to Easthaven Home for Girls. The home was run by authoritative and heartless Mrs Mersey, who spared no kindness or pity for the unfortunate girls in her supposed care.
Because once Mrs Mersey rang the meal bell, you had to stop talking, sniffing and coughing. And there was definitely no crying. You had to go to the toilet and wash your hands. And on the next bell you had to go to the dining room, and if you even sneezed Mrs Mersey would dart you the crow-eyed look that knocked your knees together. You were only allowed to speak to say Grace or answer if Mrs Mersey — Mrs Merseyless the Seniors called her, behind her back — spoke to you, which she only ever did to tell you off or punish you.
When the girls were offered the chance of what seemed like a wonderful new life in Australia, with its sunshine, long, sandy beaches, fruit that can be eaten straight from the tree, parks and play areas, not to mention the kangaroos and koala bears, Lucy was concerned it sounded too good to be true and their mother would never be able to find them. But they had no choice in the matter. They were shipped out, along with Lucy’s best friend, Vinnie, and several others. Lucy hoped the life described to them would benefit Charly, who wanted her mum and was having a hard time coping at Easthaven.
The children bloomed on the six week trip across the ocean, with fresh air, good food, new clothes and lots of time for activities. Their idyll came to an abrupt end when they reached Australia. Despite being promised siblings would be kept together, Lucy and Charly were separated and were taken to different areas of the country.
The Lost Blackbird is a fictionalised account based on real events and exposes a dark and terrible time in a not too distant past. Vulnerable children, who were not necessarily orphans, were shipped off to Australia, in most cases without their parents’ knowledge or consent, and very often with a life of drudgery and servitude ahead. No better off, in fact, than life in Easthaven, and in some cases worse. Carly, at five years old, was adopted. Lucy, twice her age, wasn’t so lucky. The story is told from both Lucy’s and Charly’s perspectives, Lucy’s harsh life on a farm in the outback and the contrast of Charly’s life with her adoptive parents. But even then things weren’t as they seemed and had adverse effects.
Liza Perrat has obviously researched the historical facts extensively and consequently the story reflects the abuse, both physical and mental, in England and Australia, that children were forced to endure. Characters are extremely well defined, their personalities evident and believable in the way their experiences shaped them and were easy to visualise, in some cases hard to forget.
The writing is wonderful, the setting perfectly realised. Liza Perrat has the knack of pulling the reader in and giving a sense of involvement. A compelling, moving and powerful read, all the more so because we know it actually happened. I’m very glad Lucy and Charly’s story ended they way it did, although I’m sure this wasn’t the case for many of those deported.
I chose to read and review The Lost Blackbird for Rosie Amber’s book review team, based on a digital copy kindly supplied by the author
Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her family for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator, and as a novelist. Since completing a creative writing course ten years ago, several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine, France Today and The Good Life France.