Memoirs of an Orphan Boy
By Hugo Bergström
Memoirs of an Orphan Boy
By Hugo Bergström
Ulverscroft Large Print, (2002)
Genre: Memoir, History
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 19, 2002
Hugo Bergström was a good-natured child with a knack for getting into trouble. Even when he was being very good, it seems that fate just had it in for him. He was born in 1928, and his mother died from tuberculosis when he was two. His father and grandmother cared for Hugo, and his older brother, Carol, as best as they could. When their grandmother died in 1931, their father made the difficult decision to give the boys up. They were subsequently admitted to the Church Union Hostel in Central London. They remained there until they were transferred to the Actor's Orphanage in Langley, in 1935.
Memoirs of an Orphan Boy is Hugo Bergström's story of his life in the Actor's Orphanage, and his eventual evacuation to America in 1940 along with a group of "under 15's" from the orphanage. They were sent out of England for their own safety, due to fear that the German's might invade the country. He was destined to spend the entire war years America, and did not return to England until he was sixteen. Bergström's memories may have mellowed with time, yet even taking this into account, he seems to have had a fairly happy childhood and his reminiscences about his difficulties are tinged with humor and a profound understanding that, when all was said and done, it was all for the best.
Bergström's parents were both opera singers, and they went under the stage names of Carl Bertram and Harriett Harcourt. When Bergström and his brother were institutionalized, they were separated. His brother was sent to live with the older boys, and Bergström with the younger boys. Perhaps, if they had been able to be together, Bergström would not have turned into to a child who was always getting into trouble, and always getting caught. Consequently he also turned into a child who was always getting punished. And, in line with the "Dickensian practices" (pg. 54) adhered to in the orphanage, Bergström was often caned.
The harsh punishments meted out at the orphanage, seemed to have little impact on Bergström's, and the other inmates, attraction to pulling practical jokes and pranks. The adults were not the only controlling force at play in the orphanage. The children also had a hierarchical organization of their own. When a new 'boy' was introduced, he was forced to undergo an initiation process. Bergström explains this process in detail and explains, how, once he had met all demands placed on him, he was accepted almost unilaterally into the fraternity of boys in his age group. He also introduces us to the many friends he gained in the orphanage.
While the book opens with Bergström's entry into the Actor's Orphanage, you are able to learn about Hugo's earlier life through short flashback sequences. Bergström, describes how life changed in the orphanage in response the coming and going of different teachers and headmasters. He also shares with the reader the tragedies inherent in a child's life, whether they live with a family or in an institution, such as when one his most beloved teachers died from stomach cancer. He also chronicles the changes that were instituted when Noel Coward became head of the institution. These changes included moving the orphanage, in 1938, to Silverlands in Chertsey. It is here that Bergström first introduces us to his love of nature as he explores the surrey countryside.
For Bergström, the coming war with Germany was something that he was slightly aware of, but it did not play much of a role in his day-to-day life, that is until the decision was made to evacuate the orphans to America. There, it was intended, that they would be adopted by various actors and actresses in California, thereby providing them with a family environment in which to live. This was not to happen. The children were destined to spend the war in New York City as guests of the Edwin Gould Foundation. Bergström details how he adapted to American life, and the new forms of mischief that he discovered, mischief that was highlight by an abortive attempt to run away to Texas. Most important, in America, Bergström became a Boy Scout and spent many summers enjoying, and suffering from, the joys of outdoor life - including being bitten by a Black Widow spider - and surviving! As time went by, in America, many of the children he had crossed over with went their separate ways, with many of the older boys joining various military services as they came of age. These included his brother, who joined the British Navy as soon as he turned 17.
Although a large part of this narrative takes place during World War II, the war is not the focus of the story. Rather, it is a coming of age tale of one boy, and the adventures he had during this process. This moving tale is told with humor and a childlike innocence that overlooks the foibles (and sometimes downright meanness) of the adults charged with his care. This tale is also marked by the candid recognition that the author must have been a real handful to care for. "...Orphanage life from a tender age had conditioned us to be tough and hard when necessary." (Pg. 141). This was a useful skill to learn. Yes, life in the orphanage was difficult at times, and Bergström was faced with many obstacles to overcome as he grew up. Yet he faced each challenge with an indomitable spirit and an unquenchable zest for life, and in the end, he managed to turn out just fine - despite his roguish tendencies. In the end, that is all that matters...
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