Hope's Boy is a memoir of Andrew Bridge's experience as a foster child, serving as an expose of the terrible flaws in the foster system. His mother married young, and her marriage broke up quickly. She had her son when she was 17, but she couldn't cope with the responsibility, since she had serious mental illness with symptoms of paranoia and delusion. Bridge spent a couple of years with his mother around the age of five, and despite her love for him, she treated him badly. So the authorities took him away from her. He was sent to some institutions first and then some foster homes, ending up with one family for a long time. Yet he felt mistreated in most of those places, and he was unhappy for most of his childhood. What's more, he saw other foster children treated worse, ending up in very bad situations. Yet Bridge himself turned out to be a talented student, and managed to not only go to college but also get a degree from Harvard Law School, after which he devoted himself to fight for the rights of other foster children.
The style of the book focuses on particular episodes, recreating them in detail. This means that Bridge must be inventing many of the details, unless he has a spectacular memory for events he experienced as a young child. Many readers (judging from Amazon.com reviews) find the memoir gripping and moving. I didn't share this reaction: I found the memoir slow moving and too full of unnecessary information, in need of a good editor. Bridge's childhood experiences are important to him, but he doesn't manage to make them important for the reader.
Oddly, the best part of the book is its Prologue, describing Bridge's initial experiences with the state care of children, just after he had got out of law school and was gaining experience as a young lawyer working on a case in Eufaula, Alabama. His story-telling here has more energy and the battle between those running the "Adolescent Center" and the advocates for the rights of children is illuminating. It is especially interesting that most of the children there were not really mentally ill, but had been diagnosed with conduct disorder because they had got into trouble, and this enabled the state to exert more power over them. Their treatment methods were so horrible that several young people attempted suicide, and this prompted lawsuits to get the institution to end its abusive practices. It's an important example of one of the problems with the use of the category of "conduct disorder" as a psychiatric diagnosis.
Bridge is working on a second book titled The Children of Eufaula, which promises to be an important document. This first book, which mostly focuses on Bridge's own childhood, does indicate that the Californian foster system does not do enough to ensure that foster children end up in good homes, but as one person's experience, it is just anecdotal.
The reading of the unabridged audiobook by David Drummond is professional, although it sometimes is a little flat and monotone, and I wish it had been more lively. Yet I suspect that a different reader would not be able to radically change the pace of the text.
· Tantor Media Audiobooks
· Hope's Boy website
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.