The Boy in the Cupboard: Harry Potter as Child Migrant Part 2

Family photos like this one of my grandfather Cyril Joyce and his father George have a haunting quality.

Family photos like this one of my grandfather Cyril Joyce and his father George have a haunting quality.

For some years now I’ve been on what I call the Path of the Ancestors. Certainly I can say that from the start of my ‘quest’ to write my book about the British Home Children in Western Canada, the ancestral voices have been there, urging me along, at times providing openings to locked doors. They spoke to me from the pages of birth and marriage certificates; from the tantalizing hints of census data; from a newly discovered family member in England and the glorious Joyce family tree he mapped out for us; from the writings of another formerly unknown ancestor who wrote forgotten but vital books; from the pages of Barnardo’s records so deeply sad they made me cry; and from the small handful of pictures I have of my Home Child grandfather Cyril Joyce. “Let the living heal the dead,” I once wrote. 13 Little did I know it would turn into a mission—for the living and the dead.

Harry Potter even has a trunk to carry all his belongings and his wizarding supplies back to Hogwart’s School of Magic every fall. Just as thousands of child immigrants crossed the oceans with everything they owned—away from home, away from family, away from everything they had ever known. Except that instead of containing a magic wand or an invisibility cloak, the child migrant’s trunk—the Barnardo trunk—contained the magic of spiritual comfort: the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress. Another quest tale. Less exciting, maybe, but no less precious. Books—the greatest treasures of all, as Rowling has demonstrated so wonderfully once again.

Spiritual comfort food: Two of the books included in every Barnardo child's trunk of possessions: the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Courtesy Ivy Sucee collection

Spiritual comfort food: Two of the books included in every Barnardo child’s trunk of possessions: the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. Courtesy Ivy Sucee collection

I’m not one to equivocate about suffering. I will not compare one form of it to another in hopes of diminishing it somehow. Too much of history has been dominated by the equivocating—minimizing—of human suffering. Or better yet, the demonizing of the victims. For too many of the Home Children this was true. Despite the spurious rationale of the social Darwinists, these children did not choose to be born into abject poverty. I do however believe there are strong elements of fate at work in our lives. What we today more properly call epigenetics and family karma. But for each of us there’s plenty of latitude for movement on the path we inherit.

Dumbledore articulates this well, and Rowling wisely avoids sentimentalizing his words of wisdom to Harry Potter: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” 14 Our choices and the actions we take to back them up. At one stroke, Rowling cuts to the heart of the matter—the grail at the heart of the tale—that this is precisely how the struggle between light and dark, ‘good and evil,’ plays out. What we do defines who and what we are—grasping and vicious like Voldemort; or a soul striving for integrity like Harry Potter, strained through the imperfections and complexities of being human.

—for Christopher McLachlan and Eleanor Spangler

FOOTNOTES

1. “Samuel Smith, a member of Parliament who helped Louisa Birt found the Liverpool Sheltering Home, wrote in 1883 of England as lingering on the edge of a volcano, and of the poor as ‘foul sewage’ stagnating beneath ‘our social fabric,’ certain if untreated to cause ‘terrible disasters.’ ‘The miserable and helpless’ metropolitan poor would not long remain immune to the ‘poisonous doctrines of Nihilism and Socialism.’ They were becoming ‘a positive danger to the State.’ —Joy Parr, Labouring Children: British Emigrant Apprentices to Canada: 1869–1924, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1980, 1994, p. 33.

2. Malthusian doctrine: Thomas Robert Malthus, a 19th century political economist, proposed that because population is subject to exponential growth, it will always outstrip the ability of a country to feed its people. This results in ‘surplus population’ whose numbers it is therefore desirable to reduce, either by policy or attrition. Thus poverty was seen ultimately as a positive force in society. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Malthus.html

3. Joy Parr, Labouring Children: British Emigrant Apprentices to Canada: 1869–1924, ibid., p. 33.

4. Joy Parr, Labouring Children: British Emigrant Apprentices to Canada: 1869–1924, ibid., p. 36.

5. Joy Parr, Labouring Children: British Emigrant Apprentices to Canada: 1869–1924, ibid., p. 34.

6. Joy Parr, Labouring Children: British Emigrant Apprentices to Canada: 1869–1924, ibid., p. 14. “They had been born in those parts of British cities in which, in the 1890s, children at birth might expect to live only thirty-six years and one in four would not reach his or her first birthday. Boys and girls from the slums were shorter and thinner, weaker and less active than the average British child. The conditions that killed so many also severely impaired the later lives of those who did not die.”

7. Charles Booth was born in Liverpool on March 30, 1840, the son of a wealthy businessman whose steamship business he would inherit. Shocked by the news that Britain was suffering a 25 percent poverty rate, he undertook his own studies in the East End of London. “The result of Booth’s investigations, Labour and Life of the People was published in 1889. Booth’s book revealed that the situation was even worse” than was reported. “Over a 12-year period (1891 to 1903) Booth published 17 volumes of Life and Labour of the People in London. In these books Booth argued that the state should assume responsibility for those living in poverty. One of the proposals he made was for the introduction of Old Age Pensions.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PHbooth.htm

8. “In the 1860s Joseph Rowntree had carried out two major surveys into poverty in Britain. Inspired by his father’s work and the study by Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London (1889), Seebohm Rowntree decided to carry out his own investigations into poverty in York. Rowntree spent two years on the project and the results of his study, Poverty, A Study of Town Life, was published in 1901,” explains Spartacus Educational. “Rowntree’s study provided a wealth of statistical data on wages, hours of work, nutritional needs, food consumed, health and housing. The book illustrated the failings of the capitalist system and argued that new measures were needed to overcome the problems of unemployment, old-age and ill-health.

“In his book The Human Needs of Labour (1918) Rowntree argued strongly for a government enforced minimum wage and the introduction of family allowances. In The Human Factor in Business (1921), Seebohm urged employers to abandon their preferred style of autocratic management in industry. However, few companies followed Rowntree’s example of establishing industrial democracy by the use of Works Councils.” Still, he helped lay the foundation for the welfare state that emerged in post-World War II Britain. The kind of abject poverty seen in Victorian Britain was a thing of the past by the 1960s.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RErowntreeS.htm

9. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 1998, p. 9.

10. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 1998, p. 11.

11. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 1998, p. 21.

12. Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 1999, p. 312.

13. Sean Arthur Joyce, Conversations with Crow: Healer, from The Charlatans of Paradise, New Orphic Publishers, Nelson BC, 2005, p. 42.

14. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 1998, p. 245.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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