No One Was Watching by Annie Horner

Book Review by Dee Michell

Annie Horner’s 2018 book, No One Was Watching, opens with a short story—’A New Kitchen’—reflective of her own first encounter with ‘Forgotten Australians’. Horner was at a party when she overheard a woman talking about finally being compensated by the government for what had happened to her as a child in out-of-home care, and how she planned to use this money to install a new kitchen.

In Australia, children and young people who cannot live with their parent(s) live in what is called ‘out-of-home care’, that is, in alternative arrangements such as foster or kinship care, a group home, or they are supported to live independently. Between 1852 and 2013 there have been numerous state and federal government inquiries into the out-of-home care system, but it was not until the 1990s that the focus was on survivors of the system giving testimony.

Three landmark federal government inquiries have resulted in prime ministerial public apologies. In 1997, Bringing Them Home reported on the forced separation of First Nations children from their parents. This was followed in 2001 by the release of Lost Innocents detailing the experience of unaccompanied child migrants from Britain and Malta.

Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children was handed down in 2008. During the 20thcentury an estimated 500,000 non-Aboriginal Australian born children were put into children’s homes, orphanages, training and reform schools, and foster care either by the state or via privately made arrangements.

No One Was Watching is Annie Horner’s—a retired educator—creative response to the Forgotten Australians report. The book forms part of her creative writing Ph.D. through Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. For Horner (2016) ‘Fictional stories invite new ways of seeing’, they can ‘disturb and disrupt’ the taken for granted…’ Yet, as Horner says in the Foreword to No One Was Watching, there have been few literary responses to this bleak chapter of Australia’s history.

Not intending to speak for those who were once hidden away in out-of-home care or who are hidden still because they cannot tell of their experiences, Annie Horner’s ‘novel-in-stories’ brings to life the largely unknown community called Forgotten Australians.

No One Was Looking is framed by a young woman’s shock and indignation on discovering the neglect and abuse of thousands of Australian children who were ostensibly being ‘cared’ for by the charitable and well-meaning, and her determination to prevent a reoccurrence.

Each story is narrated with tenderness, concern, and admiration for the survivors.

Linking the short stories is Janet. Janet went into out-of-home care after her mother died. She was separated from her siblings and had to endure sexual assault – and blame for the sexual assault—when she was sent out to foster care. Janet is a good person albeit shy and withdrawn because of all that has happened to her. As Horner says, Janet is a ‘woman of extraordinary courage, resilience and hope’ and yet without knowing her story of survival, she might well be overlooked.

In having Janet as her protagonist, Horner manages to tell the heartache of many care experiences – homelessness, marginalisation, sorrow – without perpetuating stereotypes.

Janet does not appear obviously in every story but every story connects back to Janet. There is her dead sister, her brother who lives on the margins of society, her husband who understands because he was in out-of-home care too. There is also the callous worker and the society matron who hosts a party, completely oblivious to dark happenings within the children’s home.

The characters—and what they do and what happens to them—are composites of testimonial evidence from survivors of out-of-home care. Each chapter begins with a citation from an academic or government source relating to the topic for that chapter. For example, there is an excerpt from Forgotten Australians about how previous generations of fathers ‘were not seen as appropriate care givers…’ When Janet’s mother dies, her father feels pressured into relinquishing his children.

With the clever structure of the novel-in-stories approach, Annie Horner has produced a Forgotten Australian narrative which captures both the sense of horror many Australians feel when they first hear about what happened, as well as some of the experiences had by children in ‘care’ – separation from family, brutality, regimentation, a lack of affection and nurture. She hints at the temptation to unkindly judge those we know nothing of, and about the salve on wounds that can come from those who do care and comprehend the present effects of past wrongs.

No One Was Watching is a poignant, sad book, yet one that is exquisitely written. The characters are memorable and invite your compassion and approbation.

Annie Horner has accomplished what many care leavers long for, to be given both dignity and understanding.

 

No One Was Watching by Annie Horner is published by Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, South Australia.

References:

Annie Horner (2016) Beyond the Gates: An Arts-based Investigation into the ‘Forgotten Australians’ Limina. A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies, 22(1), 51-66.

Dr Dee Michell is an academic at The University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia (with Nell Musgrove, Australian Catholic University).

 

Thanks to Annie Horner for a review copy of the book

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

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