A former foster child recalls his time in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage.”
Hope’s Boy. By Andrew Bridge. Hyperion, 306 pp., $22.95.
By Janice Harayda
Like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Hope’s Boy deals with a subject so tragic you wish the book were more credible. Andrew Bridge says he spent 11 years in foster care, part of it in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage,” after being snatched from his apparently psychotic mother on a street by authorities who made too little effort to reunite them after placing him with another family. And he makes a fair case that those things did happen to him.
But Bridge undercuts his credibility by describing early childhood and later events in implausible and gratuitous detail, including pages of line-by-line dialogue. Generations of creative-writing professors have said in effect to their students: If you want to get your character out of a parking lot, you can just have him drive away. You don’t have to say that he got out his keys, unlocked the door, and climbed in the car. Hope’s Boy is full of such padding and is consequently far longer than necessary. It is also overwrought. Bridge shows his love of purple when he describes going to bed at night when he was in kindergarten: “Tired, my mind emptied slowly into the raven night of the room’s deepening corners.”
Yet amid the surfeit of detail, Bridge leaves many questions unanswered. Why doesn’t he give the real name of his high school, where he clearly did well? Why does his say nothing about his time at Harvard Law School and instead go from his acceptance in once sentence to his graduation in another, though his book carries his story well into adulthood? Why doesn’t he mention the religion of the woman who served as his foster mother for 11 years, whom he says the Nazis had imprisoned in a Dachau satellite camp for children?
Bridge says he has changed “identifying details.” But if you change details, your story still needs to cohere. It’s natural to assume, for example, that a Holocaust survivor would be Jewish and Judaism would play a role in her life. And if this was true of his foster mother, Bridge doesn’t say so. He portrays her so unflatteringly that you wonder if he ignored the religious issue for fear of appearing anti-Semitic. But because he says his foster mother spent four years a labor camp, the issue is there, anyway. His silence just makes things murky. And Hyperion has billed his book as a memoir of “one boy who beat the odds.” Don’t we have a right to know if religion helped or hurt him along the way?
In an epilogue, Bridge tries to put his experiences in a national context by drawing on court records of the mistreatment at Alabama’s Eufaula Adolescent Center in the 1990s. This final section describes practices such as confining children for indefinite periods in six-by-nine foot cells, abuses that led to the appointment of a court-ordered monitor for Eufaula. Brief and direct, the epilogue is the strongest part of the book, because it reflects a principle too little in evidence elsewhere: Real tragedies are often so painful to read about that they are best served by understatement.
Best line: “Over half a million American children live in foster care. The majority of them never graduate from high school, and overwhelmingly, they enter adulthood only semiliterate. Fewer than ten percent of former foster children graduate college; many experts estimate the number is closer to three percent. Thirty to fifty percent of children aging out of foster care are homeless within two years.”
Worst line: Another example of Bridge’s overwrought prose appears when he describes the school bell that rang daily to announce the start of classes at his high school: “Every morning, the claxon was loud enough to taunt the boundaries of silence. Pricking thousands of eardrums, the blast walloped though the wide corridors lined with amber-colored lockers, then with nothing to stop it other than exhaustion, it spread over the large campus, across the lines of concrete and grass, dicing through the chain link fences. Muted by it, students and teachers halted their progress for the slightest moment, then once it ceased, proceeded onward with their new day.”
Published: February 2008 www.HopesBoy.com
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.