It seems only fitting that I reveal right away that I know Julia Park Tracey, I taught and directed one of her children, that I like Julia, and that I am a parent. I did not think that any of this would be a factor in writing a review for her most recent novel, The Bereaved. But in telling this story—a personal story made into fiction—Julia the mom let Julia the author use all of her storytelling skills to tell the story of what happened to their great grandfather when he was a boy. And in doing so, the writer became my teacher about the Orphan Trains of the mid-1800s, the horrible things done to poor children under the guise of salvation, what it was like to be a woman with no agency of that time, to be poor in a city of so many equally poor people, and how heroic we are sometimes forced to be when the world is nearly all ugly.
I will also reveal that early on in the story I messaged Julia to ask if there were going to be other scenes where children were in danger (something I do not handle well). I was prepared to abandon the book after one particularly harsh part, but Julia the friend took my hand and said it would be OK. So I finished the book. And I cried. And now I’m writing this piece to tell you that this story, written by this remarkable person and writer, is worth the ache you will feel, for we need to feel it, to know about then, but to also know about now. For while there are no longer Orphan Trains, there are still orphans, and women without support, and poverty, and moms who every day act heroically to love and support their families.
The Bereaved might have been equally titled The Abandoned, for that is how Martha’s story begins and that is what sends her from place to worser place. We learn on page one, line one, that she was widowed when her savior husband died from illness. And that she lost her papa when she was young and was sent by her “idle” mother to be raised by her mother. It was this person who taught our narrator to sew, a traditional skill that upon reflection takes on beautiful symbolic meaning. Being able to thread a needle, then work it through cloth to make, modify, or repair garments, proves to be a talent that sustains Martha and enables her to provide—albeit minimally—for her family.
But also this: As her life is undone, as the quilt that is the family she and her Bram made is rented from death, poverty, indifference, malevolence and war, she becomes the needle striving to salvage the cloth, keep the buttons attached, patching and mending with miserable scraps. And while so much of the story, told with phenomenal documentary detail, is about the despair this mom is living through—especially when she takes her kids to New York and joins the famous “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” sharing tenement rooms, heating and eating with whatever one can find on the street—our ordinary Martha becomes extraordinary. She is my grandmother who raised nine children during the depression, Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and my wife who worked and raised children never ever getting enough sleep.
The abandonment that Martha experiences is also a story of how we take care of each other—then and now. As a school teacher for 36 years, I was part of a system designed to educate and support all children. No matter the circumstances, kids who came to my classroom were provided with materials, meals, and motivation. Overlapping education was the social welfare system where children at risk, poor families, and women threatened with violence, were also supported. In reading The Bereaved, I learned of how there was really no such system in the 19th century—living hand to mouth, if not invented then, was surely perfected—and was compelled to think about what we do now for those who struggle.
How different are soup lines from those for free and reduced lunches where kids queue up at school? Martha is the victim of a sexual predator and has to run away for safety. Do restraining orders that we have today do any better job at protecting the victim from their tormentor? When confronted with the tragic inability of not being able to feed and care for her children, Martha is forced to seek help from the Home of the Friendless, a seemingly well intended and compassion-driven organization. I’m going to intentionally forgo describing what happens to her children once under the “care” of those do-gooders, but how similar is Child Protective Services today? Children were and are separated from their parents for noble, loving reasons, but at what cost to themselves, their families, to all of us living and aware of their plight?
The Bereaved works wonderfully on so many levels. It is an historically accurate portrait of what life was like then, it is the story of someone deserving a statue—or maybe making Mother’s Day a national holiday—and it is a mirror, as all great art is, giving us the chance to see ourselves through the prism of incredible fiction. Julia Park Tracey broke my heart in this story, and then repaired it, using her needle and thread to make and mend with glorious words and sentences.
Disclosure: Julia Park Tracey is a member of the board of Alameda Post Inc.
Gene Kahane is the founder of the Foodbank Players, a lifelong teacher, and former Poet Laureate for the City of Alameda. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gene-Kahane.