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The Stovepipe

by Bonnie E. Virag (Langdon Street Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011, 428 pages)

Book Review by Dennis Moore

          “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

  1. Mother Teresa

Bonnie Virag, the author of this endearing memoir about the resilience of the soul and the importance of family, friendship and fortitude; The Stovepipe, pours her heart into these recollections from a torn childhood. Virag’s heartrending yet triumphant memoir recounts the author’s experience growing up as a foster child in the 1940s and 1950s. In an honest, and unflinching voice, Virag engrosses readers with not only the darkness that she and her siblings endured but, more important, their ability to join together to create a sense of light. The book is truly a testament to endurance and forgiveness.

In the early 1940s, Virag and four of her siblings were forced into a big, black car and taken away from their home by the Children’s Aid Society. She was never told why; she was 4 years old at the time. Though poverty-stricken, Virag had always felt love from her mother and an older sister, “Muggs,” who helped care for the younger children (Virag’s mother had 18 children total). Perhaps that contributed to her and the other siblings being taken away, in addition to the wild nights alluded to in the book of Virag’s mother, leaving them alone with “Muggs” while she went off to drink and dance at the local dance halls. One can almost read between the lines as to why the children were taken.  Virag also indicates in the book that her father, Charles Mudford, was seldom around. This certainly did not paint a healthy and wholesome environment for the children to grow up in.

This unforgettable story is informed by Virag’s recollections, remembrances from her sisters, and the official records received from the Children’s Aid Society in Canada. Although the author indicates that her book is not an indictment of the foster care system and its many missteps, it becomes hard not to place blame at the doorsteps of this agency upon reading her story. It does beg the question, could the brutal rape of Virag’s twin sister Betty had been prevented if there had been better screening of the foster care home that she and her sister had been placed in?

Bonnie, age four, along with four of her siblings, was taken by force from her home in rural Canada and placed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society. Over the next fourteen years, the children are split up and reunited multiple times, moving from foster home to foster home, always hoping to find one another again. By luck or providence, the four sisters spend the majority of their young lives together working on a tobacco farm and living in an attic, where the stovepipe offers warmth, comfort, and news from the outside that they do not receive from their foster parents. Surviving some of the worst torments a child can know, Bonnie and her sisters depend on each other to meet even their  basic needs, forming an unbreakable bond.

Surprisingly, the author downplays what could have been considered an act of sexual abuse from one of the foster parents that she indicates in the book treated her and the twin sister Betty the best, an act in which Mr. Miller encouraged the two girls to fondle his private parts. In one particular passage in the book, the author states: “I started to sing one of the songs to him, but stopped at once when I noticed him slowly unbuttoning the front of his trousers. What’s he doing? I wondered. I glanced over at Betty and she had a blank look on her face. We were both surprised as he pulled out his private parts for us to see. ‘Touch it,’ he said softly. ‘It won’t bite you.’”  Considering the fact that the girls were treated far worse in other foster homes, perhaps this was something that the author chose to overlook, especially considering that it did not happen again at this particular household.

In the author’s afterthoughts, she paints a pretty bleak picture of her family, seeing her mother only once after the time at the tobacco farm mentioned in the story, and meeting her father quite by surprise at a Christmas party given by her sister Joan. She indicated that she was about thirty years old at the time, and that it was an emotionally disturbing experience for her, never to see him again and not knowing the date of his death.

Despite the pain and misfortune brought about by a family torn apart by early childhood separation, the author has seemed to have handled it well. In 1964, she and her husband Anthony emigrated to the United States. They reside in Michigan and have two married sons and three grandsons. She travels often to Ontario where she enjoys visiting her three sisters. I am sure those visits give them a lot to talk about and to be thankful of, having persevered under the most difficult conditions. This is a book that will warm the heart and soul, a book that I highly recommend.

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Dennis Moore is a writer and book reviewer with the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” He can be contacted at contractsagency@gmail.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.