I’ve wanted to read this since it came out, it was one of the Radio 4 Books of the Week quite a while ago but I remember reading a review that dismissed it as just another family memoir and also criticised Lynn Knight for her lack of historical evidence, indeed at several junctures she admits when describing people that she has no way of knowing if she was correct. Still, I felt that this was unfair for two reasons, first of all the writing is very effective and conjures a vivid sense of this world of cobbled streets and indeed the shop itself with its lemon sherbet and dolly blue but more importantly, Lynn Knight is not pretending to write a history book. This is the story of her family who she loves and she is speaking for them and the love shines through.
The tag line for this book was “The Story of an Accidental Family” which was in many ways misleading because there was nothing accidental about any of it but what is true is that three generations of Lynn Knight’s family were formed through adoption. Her great-grandfather, her great aunt and her mother were all adopted. What was even more diverse was the way in which what adoption meant changed through the generations.
Richard Walker became Richard Nash at the age of three when his fairground worker parents Thomas and Sarah decided to emigrate to America in 1865 and leave their son behind. This was while Queen Victoria was on the throne and the only documentation to note the event was a letter signed by his birth parents with no official authorisation – Lynn Knight notes that her great-grandfather was lucky he was not left with a baby farmer. “I, Thomas Walker, deliver my son Richard Darnce into the hands of Joseph Nash to keep as his son I remain your affectionate friend Sarah Walker”. The reasons for this adoption are unclear but Richard became Dick and he was absorbed into the Nash family, worked hard from an early age, went into the local pit, made foreman and with the help of his wife Betsy they opened a shop. Along the way, they lost a baby and had another, Lynn Knight’s grandma Annie. Struggling to have any more, they went to the local Industrial School.
The story of Knight’s great-aunt Eva was perhaps saddest of all. She was born Annie Martin to an unmarried couple, the youngest of four daughters. When her mother Emily died in childbirth, her father felt unable or was unwilling to take care of them, he gave his eldest daughter to his sister and put the youngest three into the Industrial School with their mother’s last name Ball. Annie/Eva was only two. She was brought up to go in to service but in 1909 at the age of eight, ‘a posh lady and man’ came and picked her out of all the children to take away to a whole new life, renaming her since Annie was also the name of her new sister. Knight poignantly expresses her sadness at the childhood her great-aunt had, she wants her to have had a different experience, wants it for all those children but most of all for her Eva. It is startling how easy it was for Dick and Betsy to get another daughter, again it is clear that Eva was lucky – she was loved and adored by her new parents while many other children in the same situation ended up as unpaid drudges.
|Annie and Cora|
Knight’s mother Cora was adopted in 1930 after Annie had endured many years of childlessness. Cora was eight months old when Annie and her husband Willie took her home and it was clear that the two of them bonded instantly. Cora was her mother’s treasure, to the exclusion of the already unreliable Willie. The story of Annie and Willie was the only discordant note in this otherwise cosy story – there was passion there which endured long separations but which could not withstand the pressures of everyday life. Annie’s parents were ambitious for her, putting her through the grammar school and on to teacher training. Along the way, a young man George fell in love with her, a love that lasted all his life but Annie still married Willie, the baker’s son. Although there were moments of happiness, Lynn Knight’s mother remembers clearly the sense that her parents ‘didn’t like each other very much’, a relationship overwhelmed with disappointment.
The feeling I got from reading this book was that it was like sitting at Lynn Knight’s kitchen table and asking her about her family. I felt like I wanted to tell her my family stories too – I understood and completely respected the love that she had even for her long-dead great-grandparents who she never met. For me, my grandmother’s mother died when she was only ten and yet Mary is still a vivid presence to me from the way in which her daughters speak of her even now. My great-great-great grandparents (waaaay back) are just as alive in our family- Jay who with a missing right eye could still count the crows on Downpatrick Cathedral (a long way from the farm) and his wife Lizzie, the legendary matriarch of our family. I have my middle name from Lizzie, as does my aunt, my great-aunt and my eldest cousin. I still giggle as if I was actually there about the time when Lizzie took all six of her late daughter Mary’s children to the seaside – herding them frantically towards the train at the end of the day with my youngest great-aunt on her hip. Family legends carry forward to the next generation – I remember once at a bible study a friend dismissed the value of family because ‘they die’ and I was rather startled. My grandfather died three years ago and yet I still still think of him often and think of what he would have done in different situations – death is not the end when it comes to the love within a family and this book makes that very clear. Awesome.
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Published by Atlantic Books Ltd on August 1st 2011
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs
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