Imagining Adoption:
Essays on Literature and Culture

by Marianne Novy
University of Michigan Press, 2001

Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.

     This book is in the O.I. Lending Library, but has not received much attention. It is a series of fifteen essays on adoption, mostly focused on adult adoptee issues. Some are, in fact, essays about other essays. Many refer to adoption themes in various books and plays, from Shakespeare to Edward Albee to Anne of Green Gables.
     Since this reviewer was an English major, a lot of the books and plays were somewhat familiar, but had been read many years ago, without thinking of the adoption connections. So many works of literature are referred to that it might take a year or more to go back and read them all, especially the ones I have never read.
     One essay, by the editor, is entitled “Adoption in Silas Marner and Daniel Deronda.” Although many people may have read Silas Marner in high school, I did not, so perhaps now is the time. The author goes into quite a bit of detail on these two novels, which deal heavily with adoption and fostering, and which do not present birth parents in any favorable light. Novy quotes earlier analyses of both books and the author, George Eliot, who was a stepmother.
     Although it seems a bit dangerous to try to guess an author’s motives and personal experiences a hundred years or more after the fact, the reader can gain some insight into one’s own viewpoints. A most important point expressed in this particular essay is, “But in effect, Eliot sacrifices the birth mother to save the reader’s sympathies for Godfrey [the secret birth father] and much more, for Silas. Considering how often this book has been required school reading, how many adoptees have formed pictures of their birth mothers based on it? How many birth mothers who came back to school with the assurance that no one would ever know where they had been could tell no one why they hated this book?” The writer says this almost in passing, but it may be one of the most significant comments in the entire book for many. Negative portrayals of birth parents do influence everyone, certainly adoptees and birth parents, and in such subtle, insidious ways that people may never be consciously aware of where they got their deep-seated ideas about what birth parents (and for that matter, adoptees) are like.
     Edward Albee is an adoptee and adoption issues became central in several of his plays. Having only cursory familiarity with his work, this writer has determined to go back and read them with this in mind.
     Other essays in this collection are concerned with interracial adoption, including the film Secrets and Lies (a scene from which is featured on the dust jacket); with fostering and adoption by gay parents; and with the portrayal of adoptive parents in the press and in literature. Authors focused on include Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and E.B. White. Different essays will appeal (or irritate) different readers, making this a good book for study and discussion.
     It is not a difficult book, but does require careful reading to get the most out of it. Readers who want to obtain their own copies probably should check, since books of this type rarely are in stores.
     Some of the essays discuss society’s attitudes toward adoptees, particularly during Victorian times, and even into the first decades of the twentieth century, in Canada and England. There was a practice in England at the time by which poor children were picked up off the streets (some were orphans, some were merely poor), charged with various crimes, including simply being poor or homeless, placed in workhouses, apprenticed out as child slaves, basically, and/or transported to Australia and Canada.
     Some of these children were then placed in orphanages or asylums, some were shipped across the continent (even before Charles Loring Brace’s orphan trains), and many were placed with families or individuals who used and abused them. Physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, even sexual abuse, were all legal and accepted, and even if not, no one was there to defend these children. Some of them had good lives with caring people, but all too often, they were ridiculed and abused, not even allowed to attend school.
     Articles and books were written, claiming that these children were inherently inferior, even criminal, and people were urged to refrain from any attachment to them. Adoption was not actually legal in England until 1926, although informal arrangements had always existed. The political issue was that an adopted “child,” even as an adult, posed a threat to inheritance customs. In Canada, these children were referred to as “street Arabs,” and prospective adoptive/foster families were urged to obtain “native-borns.” Never mind that the children in question were from England and Scotland, with the same genetic heritage as the “native-born.” The fact that they could not prove their parentage, or that they were poor, somehow made them morally, physically, and socially inferior.
     Also about this time, in the early twentieth century, as contraception actually came into more widespread use, the white birth rate declined, and this fact was decried. Many warned that the “superior class” was committing “race suicide,” while the new immigrants, the “lusty ... foreign breeders,” were having children at a much faster rate. Adoption was seen as a possible solution to the problem of too many lower-class children, so that it might be one’s patriotic duty to take one or more of these children. That became more popular with the idea of social malleability, that middle and upper class parents could transform a child to fit their ideal.
     This idea has not yet entirely died out, and certainly was popular after World War II, in reaction to Hitler’s ideas about inferior “races.” These ideas seem very similar to current arguments against immigration, particularly as researchers found that such writings and opinions went back and forth according to the economic ups and downs of Canada and the U.S.
     Overall, this book will provide food for thought and some new ways of looking at adoption and a good many other social issues. It should probably be required reading for prospective social workers, therapists, and adoption agency professionals, not to mention prospective adoptive parents. Birth parents may wish they had been included in more positive ways. Adoptees will probably find the book informative and possibly helpful, though it should probably not be the first book one reads when contemplating a search or reunion.

Excerpted from the January 2012 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2012 Operation Identity