Every once in a while, one reads a book that leads you to re-evaluate something you never thought all that much about. Earlier this year, I read Patti Hawn’s Good Girls Don’t; which is the autobiographical story of a teenage girl in the 1950’s who becomes pregnant, ends up giving her son up for adoption and much later in life is reunited with him. I had never given that much thought to what the experience of a number of people I had known as a teenager must have actually been like. They were shuttled off to either relatives or “Homes for Unwed Mothers” to have their babies far from the prying eyes that usually share head space with wagging tongues. They were then expected to behave as if nothing of the sort had actually happened.
Storms on the Sea of Tranquility involves a different kind of 1950’s stigma, the shame of mental illness that prevented Mae Bailey from obtaining any treatment of her undiagnosed disease by a family who tired to cover up the strange behavior she displayed during cyclical manic/depressive periods. She ends up bearing three children by two men who ultimately abandon her, leaving her at the mercy of the welfare system while she gets pulled down into a spiral of alcoholism, mental illness and prostitution that ultimately leads to the loss of her children to the foster system.
The first half of the book covers Mae’s sad tale and the second half of the book is focused on Mae’s first born: Michael. Michael, who is seven years old when he and his little sisters are removed from Mae’s care to become wards of the State of Oregon.
Steven L. Fay, the book’s author, was a foster child himself, spending nearly 13 years in the foster system during the 1950’s and 60’s. While not autobiographical, the novel is set in the area when Fay grew up, and much of it in the town where Fay graduated from High School, Lebanon. Which happens to be where I grew up. Steve, which is what he was known by in high school, was a couple of years ahead of me in school. We were in a speech class together when I was a sophomore and he was a senior. We probably only said a dozen words or so to each other over the semester: we were in different orbits. I had no idea he was a foster child, and he was one of the more popular people in his class. He had a way with a tale and spent much of his time in class thrilling a couple of juniors with stories of his exploits. He called the teacher “coach” and somehow got away with it. I thought he was a cool guy. He graduated in 1968.
He still has a way with a story, and the book is filled with detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s life in Idaho and Oregon. His eye for detail enabled me to keep a little cinematic version of the book going in my head, picturing the interiors of homes, 1950’s automobiles and Northwest scenery along with the books characters. He has a gift for natural sounding dialog that is rare and also manages to insert commentary and observations from a narators point of view (and sometimes his own) without interrupting the flow of the story, which is actually quite a feat.
The first foster home the kids are placed in sets a hopeful tone: the Hoffman family seem like decent, loving people who care for the children and quickly bond with them. Maybe this isn’t going to be quite so bad. When the authorities notice the degree of affection the children and the Hoffman family have for each other, the children are removed from the Hoffman’s home, as that was the official policy for children tho may someday be returned to their biological parents. Since a little over half of the children in foster care eventually return to their families, one can understand the reasons for this.
But the sense of how gut wrenching the experience must be for both sides brushes aside such rationalizations. You find your self thinking: “How can this be?” The sense of loss is even stronger when Michael, who is barely 11, discovers that the court has stripped his mother of her parental rights and that his sisters are going to be separated from him and adopted by a family.
You follow Michael through a series of homes as he grows up, some of which are shockingly abusive. Through his own strength of character, and a few souls along the way who offer him encouragement and moral support, he manages to cope as if navigating a mine field. Smart enough to see those who are taking advantage and mistreating him and other foster kids, but somehow controlling his anger and maintaining his sense of self worth.
Although fictionalized, this story rings true. Fay is a shrewd observer of human character and he paints no two dimensional villains without any redeeming virtues, but people who’s behavior is all the more monstrous because they could be your neighbors, friends or relatives: people that you might gossip over a fence with. Enough of this stuff had to actually happen that you can’t help but see Mr. Fay as a survivor.
And that he is. The odds are stacked against the 20,000 children who “age out” of the Foster system at age 18 annually, and are basically just set adrift without an adult support system. Nationally, barely half of them manage to graduate high school and fewer than 3% of them manage to get a bachelors degree. At some point between foster care and adulthood, somewhere between one fourth and one third of them will find themselves homeless and half of them experience unemployment.
Somehow, Steven Fay managed to beat the odds, obtained a college degree and became a successful executive in the Food Industry; he has nearly 20 grandchildren.
This book is far from a grim parade of abuses, one after the other. It does make you look at your own childhood and marvel at how many things you took for granted, but you also see how the everyday heroics of your parents, teachers, ministers and other role models helped to shape your life. Little everyday acts of kindness and encouragement do matter. When you get to the end, you discover this is a book about forgiveness and letting go of things that will only hold you back in life.
I quoted some numbers a couple of paragraphs above, and if you’re interested in where those came from; take a look here. There’s also a little information about an organization dediced to helpint foster shildren transition into productive, happy adults.