I initially judged Betty Auchard’s The Home for the Friendless by its cover and expected a story like that of Annie. I pictured the Home for the Friendless as an orphanage, and I thought I would be reading about all of the children living there. However, I soon discovered that the facility was merely a temporary home for author Betty Auchard and her two younger siblings and was written about as a small memory intertwined into hundreds of memories. I never expected to learn so much about a poor girl’s faith in her family as well as rich historical details about the war and the Great Depression.
In this captivating and rich memoir, Auchard opens with an introduction containing a scene from the Home for the Friendless. Although the Home only occupies a small moment of this expansive memoir, Auchard captures the theme in this single scene. She is separated from her parents and her brother and sister, yet she dreams of when they can all be together again. The memoir covers her life from toddler to teenager during the 1930s and 40s, and the book is arranged into eight parts. Each part contains a theme, such as “The War at Home,” and those parts contain anecdotes that are subtitled, such as “Wartime in Winter” and “Letters from Soldiers.”
Auchard grew up in poverty, spending most of her time in Iowa, with parents who frequently fought. These fights escalated into separations, which caused them to move so often that it was hard for Auchard to keep friends. But no matter where she lives, she only feels at home when her parents and siblings are all together.
How lucky Auchard was to write such a heartfelt and honest memoir. I have a hard time remembering specific moments of my elementary school life, yet Auchard captures her moments as if she were a photographer, recording them for her children and grandchildren. One prominent aspect of her writing is her profound voice. She manages to portray her voices remarkably well during her various stages of life. Her innocence is touching in the stories of her youth, and her childhood ignorance adds a witty touch to some of the stories with adult themes. “I heard Mama say more than once that Uncle Jiggs had a serious drinking problem. That really scared me because, apparently, I had the same problem,” she wrote. “My dad caught me [drinking from the bathroom faucet after bedtime] and said [to my mother], ‘I think Betty has a little problem. She drinks too much after supper.’ I wondered if my uncle wet his bed, too.”
In addition to the humorous parts, her writing craft is revealed in her dramatic descriptions that seem to encompass all the senses. In one scene where she falls and scrapes her knees, she writes, “Both knees looked like red raspberries with their juice streaming down my legs.” Similarly, I, too, can taste the summer tomatoes when she describes her love for their vegetable garden. “Because Dad liked vegetables, all of us liked vegetables, especially tomatoes. Bob, Patty and I sneaked the salt shaker out of the house every day in the summer. We’d pick a big, ripe tomato and lick a spot to make the salt stick, then break the skin with our teeth to make the first bite easier. Hot tomato juice ran down our dirty arms and left clean pink streaks behind. We called that lighter line of skin on a dirty arm a ‘streak-of-clean’.”
In another scene, strangers arrive to her house and steal her dog, but her babysitter tries hard to stop them. She describes her babysitter candidly, “Hattie flew into action, smacking the hood with her broom as they backed away. Although bent and crooked, she chased the departing auto down the driveway with small, fast steps, yelling words I couldn’t understand because of her toothless mouth.” And Auchard’s observations that she made throughout her childhood seem to be universal of most, if not all, children, such as “The truth was not always what grownups wanted to hear. After that, I learned to weigh carefully whether an answer should be honest or a fib,” and, “Grownups always seemed to be sick and tired. I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could find out what sick and tired really felt like.”
One of my favorite parts—unexpected and fascinating—was reading Auchard’s memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor and various other historical facts. She was 11 years old at the time, but she describes what life was like in her point of view. While the adults conferred about certain aspects of the war, Auchard explains how they rationed food and supplies and how the war affected her way of life at the time. She writes, “My family was poor, so doing without had been a way of life for us long before the war started.” But she provides details such as, “We had discovered that two boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese used only one blue ration coupon. That was such a good deal that our family alone probably made the Kraft Company rich.” Auchard also mentions actual names of the radio programs that she listened to, such as Lux Radio Theater, The Lone Ranger, and Let’s Pretend. And after her Epilogue, in which she reflects upon her mother, she offers a section titled, “Betty’s History Lessons” which includes alphabetized entries explaining everything from Betty Grable to Palmer Method Penmanship.
The Home for the Friendless is like a photo album, or a camera full of photographs waiting to be developed in the reader’s mind. It’s organized in chronological order with snapshots from the author’s life, except that the snapshots are all vignettes—or short, short, short stories, if you will—filled with powerful descriptions and emotions. I found myself wanting to read specific parts to people, just to share the information. I suddenly wanted to know what that time was like for my own grandparents, who were born in the early 20s and endured the 30s and 40s just as Auchard had.
Sure, Auchard might have grown up poor, but her memoir is rich with stories that, although some were good and some were bad, left me believing that she is happy and living a good life. I felt as if Auchard were writing these stories to me and found myself laughing and crying along with her.