A debut memoir reconstructs the complex and volatile world of an orphanage in 1950s New York City.
At just 4 years old, James and five of his siblings were hurled into the Mount Loretto Staten Island orphanage. Instead of their unstable mother, the kids would now have a series of adult caretakers who alternated wildly between violence, exasperation, and kindness toward the screaming masses of children in their charge. James’ childhood was spent passing from one “house” to the next with each new birthday. His days were filled with rock fights, boxing matches, and futile attempts to escape the cruel torture of older “junior counselor” boys. James would also often venture into the city to see his older sister, June, and their mother. At one point, June even surprised him and his brother David by introducing them to their father. (“It never occurred to me whether I had a father or not,” James writes.) But no one in this family ever provided a real path to a more stable life. Even after leaving the city to live with his older brother Richard in Wyoming, James eventually found his way back to Mount Loretto and the grim realities of an impoverished existence in ’50s New York that awaited the orphanage’s former residents. Overall, James’ memoir focuses most on daily life in the orphanage. He concentrates on the interactions between children, delivering countless scenes of harrowing abuse as well as smaller moments, as when the siblings collectively dream of being rescued by a rich family even though they “all knew it was just a bunch of lies.” In this way, James renders Mount Loretto as a complicated and intriguing place; each adult and all the children introduced by name offer nearly equal moments of both tenderness and savagery. But the world outside the orphanage never feels as well developed. James offers glimpses of his post-orphanage life in ’50s Brooklyn and Spanish Harlem—but there is certainly a lot of room for him to further explore beyond Mount Loretto and its lasting effects.
A riveting view of a truly tragic childhood that will leave readers wanting more of the author’s story.