Doyle: Orphans and Art
Everyone loves an orphan. Books and movies are filled with plucky urchins like Little Orphan Annie or the Boxcar Children that carry on, in what Charles Dickens called, the universal struggle. And orphans were Dickens’ specialty. He gave us Oliver Twist, Little Nell, and David Copperfield whose story has one of the great opening lines in literature: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
My favorite Dickensian orphan is Pip from Great Expectations. Pip names himself and finds his way in spite of the Ms. Havishams and Mr. Pumblechooks of this world. American literature has a Pip as well, the black cabin boy in Moby Dick, lost over-board twice and finally driven mad by Ahab’s quest to see behind the mask of whiteness. And, of course, there's Huck Finn, who finds his own family on a raft, sees American civilization for what it is, and runs the other way.
The story of the orphan has spoken to us since Moses in the bulrushes and probably before - because being adrift in an uncertain world where cruelty and indifference can be found on any city corner or around any bend in the river, is a shared human experience. We often feel like motherless children even if we aren't, and our stories, even when they contain romanticized depictions, help us recognize this as universal.
I’ve been thinking about orphans ever since seeing a photo in the paper of an eight year-old boy from Honduras. He had traveled alone to the Texas border to escape the rampant violence in his home country - just one of 52,000 unaccompanied children who made a similar journey this past year. Suddenly, Dickens doesn’t seem so distant, especially when I look at that picture and see a face that could be my own son’s.
So I find the protests by “concerned citizens” demanding the immediate deportation of these children downright painful. I don’t know if reading Nicholas Nickelby would inspire a modicum of empathy in the hearts of these protesters, or provide them with the historical context needed to make sense of this migration, but I do know that art has the power to reconfigure experience and unify people.
Vermonters can see it in their own town squares and the many granite monuments recognizing the sacrifice of Civil War veterans 150 years ago - when men, and women, fought for a shared America in which, whatever Pip you looked like, you were home.
And the stone cut from Vermont quarries to build these monuments was worked by immigrants: Poles, French Canadians, Irish, Italians; people who believed in the promise of a better life and in the right of self-determination - not too different from the orphans of today or from any of us who hope that, like Copperfield, we can be the heroes of our own lives.