April L. Ford’s award-winning story collection, The Poor Children, is a courageous effort to remove the blinders we stubbornly cling to, the blinders that prevent us from seeing the pitiable conditions and situations that many hopelessly endure. In the worlds of these stories, cruelty, exploitation, and dysfunction are the norm, and the poor children are both victims and perpetrators.
The settings, subjects, and characters are diverse: teens in correctional facilities, families steeped in poverty and ignorance; inept, drunken parents; small towns outside the fringe of cultural normality; hapless correctional officers and social workers; a haunted museum ironically situated in a ski-resort town; beautiful, damaged children who are exploited because of their beauty or who use it for selfish gain; a fundamentalist cult where inbreeding has produced grotesque specimens and the opportunity for further exploitation. This collection is driven by dark impulses that we deny, ignore, or try to hide.
Ford writes about disturbing topics with authority. Most of the stories are delivered through first-person narrators, often kids in their early teens. In these she employs both male and female narrators whose voices are welded to the characters’ motives, environments, and tendencies. In the exceptions that unfold through a third-person voice, Ford handles the camera lens with admirable skill, moving seamlessly through time and in and out of characters’ minds.
Ford’s language in these stories is gritty and visceral while reflecting the beauty of spoiled fruit or faded blooms. The following example is from “Isabelle’s Haunting”:
First it was the youngest child, infant Valérie, who was found lying face down in her crib in October. The autopsy revealed she had drowned in lung fluid, but the cause was neither viral nor bacterial. The following month it was the twins, toddlers Benoît and Pierre Lamont. They awoke in the middle of the night convulsing. … Twelve-year-old Isabelle was the next to go, but her death was never confirmed. Her bed was found empty on the December after the twin’s death, not a crease on the sheets or an imprint on the pillow. …
Readers who are brave enough to gaze unflinchingly upon the horrors we inflict upon ourselves and our children will savor this collection. The Poor Children is disturbing yet beautiful in its execution and the possibilities revealed when we rip down the mildewed curtains to let in the light.