Liz Berry’s latest book The Home Child traces the life of her great aunt, Eliza Showell, 12 years old and newly orphaned, sent away from the Black Country in the UK to rural Canada in 1908 as part of the British child migrant scheme. She was forced to work on a farm, never to see her family again. This scheme was something I knew very little about, and I was surprised to learn from the book’s introduction that one in ten Canadians is now descended from a Home Child.
The Home Child is an extremely moving novel-in-verse, a love letter to nature and family. Reading it made me think back to childhood, of jumping into piles of autumn leaves to hear the way they’d crunch, the way they’d stick to your clothes and refuse to let go. Liz Berry’s writing is just like that: a joyful act of diving into colourful words, paying close attention to how they sound, noticing the ones that stick, then holding them up to catch the light. I had a chat with her about the creation of her latest book.
Jen: Poetry feels like such a perfect way to tell Eliza’s story: it’s so fluid, yet measured; it reflects oral history, a passing down of tales. What was the spark for The Home Child?
Liz: I first discovered Eliza’s story when I was setting off on my own journey to Nova Scotia. I was on a literary pilgrimage to Green Gables, home of the eponymous Anne, another 12-year-old orphan, and my girlhood heroine. In L.M. Montgomery’s novels, Anne, born poor and exploited, remains full of spirit and wonder, and the world falls in love with her.
At the same time, my mother was tracing her family tree and uncovered the story of my great aunt Eliza’s emigration to Canada as a British Home Child. Eliza’s story felt movingly like a shadow to Anne’s. I followed her route from her birthplace in the Black Country out to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and finally to the rural cemetery where she was buried. Laying wildflowers on Eliza’s small grave, I knew I wanted to bring her story – and those of Home Children like her – to light.
Jen: In The Home Child you have used poetry as an act of un-disappearing, as an unearthing. How did you find that process? What about it comforted you, and what about it surprised you?
Liz: What a beautiful idea: poetry as an act of un-disappearing, of making visible and audible that which might otherwise be lost. I’d only ever worked from poem to poem before, so I was surprised by how deeply immersed I became in Eliza’s story and the lives of the Home Children. Reading their names and brief reports in their children’s home records I felt a longing to trace all their journeys and discover what became of them, to look after them in some way.
I thought very hard about whether to use Eliza’s real name in the book, especially as much of the story has been imagined, but in the end it felt like the right thing to do. There was so much shame and secrecy surrounding the Home Children, both on a national level and within their own families, within my family, that I wanted to lift Eliza’s name from the darkness and hold it up to the light very proudly and tenderly. I didn’t want her name, or her life, to be erased, to disappear without being spoken again. Writing the poems comforted me as it felt like a way to reach through time to Eliza and say: I remember you; you are not forgotten.
Jen: What were some key things you learned from researching the lives of other Home Children that influenced the creation of this book?
Liz: Something that touched me very deeply in my research was the way the children spoke, time and time again in their interviews and letters, of being made to feel like animals in their lives as young migrants. That idea of creatureliness, of becoming part of the beyond-human world, is woven throughout The Home Child: the children are sparrows, wildflowers, seeds, cattle, foals, dogs, piglets, trembling aspens… Yet, also held within that motif is the redemptive idea that animals might be the gentlest and noblest of us, that it’s an honour and a blessing to be among their kind.
The Home Children experienced such loss and sorrow yet so many of them managed to survive, to thrive and build families. At its heart I knew The Home Child had to be a story about human resilience and our amazing capacity to love. As the little violets sing to Eliza at the end of the book: “Home’s not a place, you must believe this / but one who names you and means beloved.”
Jen: Can you talk us through the making of one of the poems?
Liz: In the very first poem, “Children’s Emigration Home, December 1907”, we glimpse Eliza at the window of the Middlemore Emigration Home in Birmingham. Held behind glass, we gaze up at her from the street below as snow falls, enchanting everything. The poem came to me when I went to visit the original Emigration Home building the evening before it was demolished to make way for flats. A beautiful red brick Victorian building left to ruin, ivy and weeds growing from its windows, it seemed to hold all the voices and sorrows of the children who had passed through it. Photographing the windows as the evening sun hit, I thought for a second that I saw the shape of a girl in the upper room. It was a trick of the light of course, but it set the poem in motion. What might Eliza look like? What might she be saying to me? Where would I carry her story next?
Jen: Language is so important in this text — words that remind us of home, of self. Can you share some of your favourite Black Country dialect words, and why they continue to charm you?
Liz: I adore Black Country dialect – gutsy, earthy and unexpectedly lyrical. A great part of my mission as a poet is to show it as a beautiful language, a tender one. In The Home Child there’s some gorgeous old words: donny (hand), canting (talking), tranklements (bits and bobs) but I think my favourite is the word wum, an old Black Country way of saying “home”. It feels so warm to me, so perfectly held in the mouth when you speak it, and sonically it’s also very close to the word “mum”, which takes on great meaning for Eliza as she loses both her mother and her home in quick succession.
Jen: I love that. I’m from Sunderland and one of my favourite Geordie/Mackem words is also one for home: “yem”. It feels very precious. Finally, it’s said that writing a book always teaches us something new. What did this book teach you?
Liz: I love that idea of a book as a teacher. This book taught me to seek the bright places and the tender places in a story while not shying away from things that are dark and difficult. It also taught me a lot about the responsibilities we have as writers when we tell someone else’s story, especially if that person is vulnerable. I’ve tried to tell Eliza’s story with the utmost compassion and respect. When writing, I imagined holding her as gently as I hold my own sons.
Liz Berry is the award-winning author of Black Country and The Republic of Motherhood. Her latest book The Home Child is published by Chatto & Windus, available now.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.