First Names Only by Elaine Blick – 2015

first names onlyThis novel claims to provide ‘insight into the very sensitive issues surrounding the unmarried mother and adoption’.  The main character, Janice, falls pregnant at 18 and ends up in Sunnyvale, a home for unmarried mothers in Auckland.  It is the early 1960s, it will be over 10 years before New Zealand provides Government support for single mothers, and in many cases adoption is seen as the only practical option.  But not the community adoption such as whāngai in Maori culture; adoption where the babies are taken from the mothers at birth and from then on the mothers are legally forbidden to ever have contact with their children again.  Great subject matter for a novel – particularly when the stigma of being an unwed mother continued in fine form throughout the years of DPB (now Sole Parent Support).  Elaine Blick’s mother was the secretary at a home like Sunnyvale for many years, and Blick met a number of young women in the home and has used their stories in this book.  But what she has also used front and centre is her belief in the guiding hand of God in all our destinies.  All the many characters in the book are kind, generous and at one time or another devout and swayed by faith in God.  I grew up in the 1960s – I recall friends who “went up North for a while” – and the wholesale acceptance of the patriarchal ‘solution’ to this social issue was definitely not meekly and gratefully accepted by all, as it is by all the young women in this novel.  Added to the list of things a prayer or two can resolve are: enlightened care for Down Syndrome children, the dealing with miscarriage and loss of childbearing, and the death of those close to you.  When the ‘solutions’ are so simple there is no tension; no exploration of human tragedy and the ways that people find to continue.  I am not saying you can’t have great fiction written from the premise of Christian faith – Marilynne Robinson, a committed Christian, writes wonderfully challenging books about faith.  But where adoption is suddenly accepted because “Jesus was actually adopted. He was the son of God but he was brought up by Joseph, a carpenter”, a chance is lost to really get to grips with this extraordinary social phenomenon.  I’m not sure who I can recommend this book to – I think even those with firm faith might find it a bit contrived.

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