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on Aug. 20, 2010 :
Sorry it took me so long to get around to writing this review. But I am glad that others have said it better than me. This is an encouraging and hopeful story of survival of a child who was dropped into an alien world at the age of four after her mother had a nervous breakdown. What's in a name? Today's Terry was called "Terfina" by the abusive nuns who took her into "St. Ann's Infant Asylum" in Columbus, Ohio. She thought that was her name until many years later she discovered her name in her native Italian language had been "Concetta" (Gelormino). "Terry" symbolizes the author's marvelous adaptability, making lemonade out of the many bitter lemons "the cruelty of strangers" would deal her, as she adapted to the culturally insensitive and blunted atmosphere of asylum and orphanage. Preserving her sanity, personality and creativity in such adverse situations proves what Humanistic Psychology teaches: each one of us has within ourselves the capacity to grow and to heal "with a little help from our friends." Terry's indomitable spirit helped her find helping hands, faces and hearts on the inhospitable plains of the her habitat. She preserved her sense of humor, her playfulness, her goodness, and her sensitivity in a truly miraculous way. Read the poems she wrote and with which she adorns some chapter introductions.
I would strongly recommend this book as healing for all those who have had similar experiences, and as inspiration to parents, educators, social workers and therapists and all those who want to learn about what helps and hinders a growing child. And to all of us who want to make peace with our past.
(reviewed the day of purchase)
on Aug. 20, 2010 :
Terry Silver's memoir of her childhood years is one of the most engaging memoirs that I've read in quite some time. Being placed in an Ohio orphanage in 1929 with her four young siblings after their mother was committed to a mental hospital and with her ailing father unable to support them, she spent virtually her entire youth in orphanages. She was initially placed in St. Ann's Infant Asylum in Columbus, Ohio, which was operated by an order of Catholic nuns who inexplicably changed her name from her given "Concetta" to "Terfina." I can only imagine how frightening this must have been for a four-year-old who only spoke Italian, her parents' native language. After two years at St. Ann's, she was transferred across the street to St. Vincent's Orphanage, which was also run by nuns. In 1940, at her father's request, the teenaged Terfina was transferred to the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home (OS&SO) in Xenia, Ohio, where she lived until graduating from high school.
Reading about life in St. Vincent's was eerily reminiscent of reading "Oliver Twist," with orphanage life being remarkably similar in some ways to life in the children's workhouses of 19th century England. Reading about the harsh treatment by some of the nuns, the wretched food, and the spartan living conditions made me extra grateful for growing up with two loving parents. And I understand why Ms. Silver refers to the nuns as "Nunzilla" in the title of her book.
Life at the OS&SO, a secular institution run by the State of Ohio, was much different and much better than at St. Vincent's. Children were much freer there, and living conditions and food were much improved compared to St. Vincent's. But even there, as the author hated some particularly cruel nuns at St. Vincent's, she came to hate Miss Redway, the housemother of her cottage and the "stepmother was a witch" in the book's title. Years later, after Miss Redway's sudden death, Ms. Silver experienced feelings of guilt for being glad that Miss Redway was dead. This conflict would torment her for several years.
The memoir portion of "Nunzilla" ends with Ms. Silver's graduation from high school. In a postscript, she reaches a surprising conclusion that parentless children would be better off in an orphanage than in a foster home, and she makes a good case for this. She also manages a degree of forgiveness for the nuns of St. Vincent's, explaining that their order had a tradition of strictness and that most of the nuns genuinely believed that their tough discipline was meant to keep kids from burning in hell.
It was the little tidbits of daily life at St. Vincent's and the OS&SO that made the story so fascinating. St. Vincent's was a grim, dreary place with few joys for the children other than a rare occasional treat. Ms. Silver was there during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and in the orphanage, the food was mostly donated rotten fruit and spoiled meat that was too gross to read about, much less to actually consume. And there was so little food that the kids were always hungry. The orphanage building was an ugly, dirty place with little outside green space to play in and few opportunities to leave the grounds.
By comparison, the OS&SO was a paradise, with better facilities, better food, even weekly allowances for the kids to spend on movies or treats in town. If it wasn't for the cruel housemother in Cottage Fifteen, it would have been as good as an orphanage could get.
Terry Silver's story ends shortly after the end of World War II, when she leaves the OS&SO and moves into the "real" world.
Ms. Silver writes very well, with her vivid descriptions of life in the three orphanages she lived in and her relationships with both the adults who ran the orphanages and the other kids she met while living there. She's had an interesting life for sure.
A definite five stars. Highly recommended reading.
(reviewed the day of purchase)