Bonnie, age four, along with four of her siblings, was taken by force from her home in rural Canada and placed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society. Over the next fourteen years, the children are split up and reunited multiple times, moving from foster home to foster home, always hoping to find one another again.
By luck or providence, the four sisters spend the majority of their young lives together working on a tobacco farm and living in an attic, where the stovepipe offers warmth, comfort, and news from the outside that they do not receive from their foster parents. Surviving some of the worst torments a child can know, Bonnie and her sisters depend on each other to meet even their basic needs, forming an unbreakable bond.
Bonnie Virag’s heartrending yet triumphant memoir, The Stovepipe, recounts the author’s experience growing up as a foster child in the 1940s and 1950s. In an honest, unflinching voice, Virag engrosses readers with not only the darkness that she and her siblings endured but, more important, their ability to join together to create a sense of light.
This unforgettable story is informed by Bonnie’s recollections, remembrances from her sisters, and the official records received from the Children’s Aid Society in Canada. This book is not an indictment of the foster care system and its many missteps. Rather, it is a testament to the resilience of the soul and the importance of family, friendship and fortitude.
Targeted Age Group: 16+
Genre: Memoir, Autobiography
The Book Excerpt:
After sulking for days, I became resigned to the fact that my hopes for attending high school were dashed. But I was still angry with the Benders and found it difficult to even look at them. Jean and Joan, not wanting to upset me, seldom talked about school, even though Betty and I knew they were fretting about their new clothes. Watching from our window in mid-September, we noticed Mr. Bender bringing in a large package from the truck. We looked at each other, full of anticipation. Within minutes, the door opened, and Mrs. Bender called Betty to the foot of the stairs. “Here, these new clothes are for you and Bonnie,” she said offhandedly. “Your sisters’ package should be arriving soon.”
Jean and Joan, though disappointed their clothes hadn’t arrived, joined in the excitement of opening our package, eager to see what she had ordered. “Well, at least she got you a decent-looking skirt,” Jean said.
“But it’s all wrinkled,” I complained, holding it against my waist.
“Oh, quit complaining,” Joan said. “Just dampen it a bit and press it against the warm stovepipe. That’ll help. At least you got some new clothes.”
Betty and I started back to school just before the end of harvest. Jean and Joan were left with a few more days of work. After they were through handing leaves, they walked down the road to meet us as we trudged home from school.
“Well, I still have my favorite teacher, Mrs. Lenhart,” I told them as they met up with us. “And she told me that the Superintendent of Schools wasn’t too happy about letting me repeat the year when I had already successfully passed my entrance examinations. But things must have gotten ironed out okay.”
“Well, we can only guess what lies the Benders told them,” Jean said.
“But I miss Marie’s breaded chicken now that she’s gone,” Betty complained.
“Did you get your new clothes yet?” I asked, trying not
to think about the breaded chicken. I was already hungry enough.
“No, and Mrs. Bender hasn’t mentioned a word about high school, either,” Joan said. “I watch the high school bus go by every day and wonder why we aren’t on it.”
“Well, I’ve almost worked up enough nerve to ask Mrs. Bender if she doesn’t say something soon,” Jean said crossly.
“I wanna know what’s in store for us.”
A few days later, Betty and I were on our way home and looked eagerly down the road for our sisters. “I wonder why they aren’t coming to meet us,” I said. “That’s not like them.”
“I don’t know. They didn’t have to fill a kiln today, so maybe Mrs. Bender finally took them to get new clothes.”
“I hope so. Guess we’ll know soon,” I muttered as we turned into the driveway.
We couldn’t find them anywhere in the backyard, so we went inside. Mrs. Bender was sitting at the kitchen table sipping tea, apparently waiting for us.
“Where are Jean and Joan?” I blurted out. “They didn’t come to meet us.”
She looked a bit uncomfortable as she set the cup down. She then looked up and said flatly, “The Children’s Aid removed them today.”
“Removed them?” My mouth dropped open as panic gripped me. “Why? What did they do wrong?”
She shifted uneasily in her chair and said, “It was time for them to go. That’s all.”
That’s all? Just like that? Like chalk erased from a blackboard? I was totally confused, unable to grasp what she was telling us. “What do you mean? Will they ever come back?”
“No, I’m afraid not. The Children’s Aid has found new homes for them.”
“But we didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye!” Betty whimpered.
Tears welled up in my eyes as we held hands and stood numbly beside the door. “Why didn’t someone tell us they
“I thought it would be best this way,” she replied flatly.
“Will we ever see them again?” I sputtered.
“I gave them our address and told them they could write to you. Now go to your rooms and I’ll make some macaroni and cheese for your supper.”
“Macaroni and cheese? Does she think that’ll make us feel better?” Betty sobbed as we trudged upstairs. “I don’t even feel like eating without them, and I ain’t even hungry now.”
Unable to fathom everything, we hurried into our sisters’ room, desperately hoping they might still be there. But it was empty and freshly swept. Nothing was left but the old linoleum in the middle of the floor. “Look,” I said, “they’ve taken away their old bed! That’s why Mr. Bender said that it would have to do for a while longer, and that’s why theirnew clothes never arrived. They were planning this all along.” We had it figured out now.
We scoured their room, looking for something they might have left behind—anything to hold on to—but there was nothing. Not even a bobby pin. We then checked under the linoleum hoping to find a note they may have hidden for us—but found nothing. Our spirits broken we returned to our rooms, threw ourselves across our bed, and wept bitterly. Nothing could have prepared us for this horrible turn of events, and nothing could have equaled the pain we felt by having our sisters torn away from us once more, leaving us wondering whether we’d ever hear from or see them again. My anger had grown toward the Benders because they had made me repeat the eighth grade, and it now turned to hatred because they had sent our sisters away. We felt lonely at dinner that night, the table seeming twice as big without them.
Noticing our sulkiness as we picked at our food, Mrs. Bender set her lips in a tight line and dug in her handbag for some loose change. “You’d better find time to take these girls to the movies today, Jim. Why, I swear, I’ve never seen such sour pusses in all my life!” We enjoyed the movies, but nothing cheered us up for the loss of our sisters and all the things we had enjoyed together We would never listen down the stovepipe again. Instead, we waited impatiently every day for some news from them.
“Do you think they’ll write us,” Betty asked, “or do you think she was lying about giving them our address just to make us feel better?”
“I don’t know, and I wouldn’t believe anything she says. We’ll have to wait and see.”
As winter came and the days grew cold and gray, we helped Mr. Bender dismantle our bed and move it into Jean and Joan’s room. “This room with the stovepipe will be warmer for you during the winter,” he remarked as he left the room.
“Warmer? I’d like him to sleep up here and see how warm it is,” I crabbed. “There’s no heat at all in this stupid pipe when the fire goes out.”
It was almost Christmas when Mrs. Bender handed us anenvelope, saying that it was from Jean, and it was evident that she had already opened it. It contained a Christmas cardwith a letter inside. Sitting side by side on our bed with our backs against the wall, we read it over and over, laughing at her funny remarks as she described her new home: We even have an inside bathroom here with a flushing toilet to boot. Yesterday I had a bubble bath in a real tub with real taps where hot or cold water comes out. Why, I swear to you, I’ve never been so clean in all my life. I even got the map of the world off the back of my neck.
“Wow,” Betty exclaimed, “she even gets to take a bath! Wouldn’t it be nice if Mrs. Bender would let us have a bath?”
“What do you mean? I’ve never seen a bathroom.” I furrowed my brow. “How do you know she even has one?”
“It’s just off the laundry room, hidden behind a curtain. She left the door open one day, and I snuck in and took a peek.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?“
“I thought you knew. Did you ever see her use the outhouse?”
“Well, that’s why.”
I was puzzled over this news and wondered why Mrs. Bender never let us have a bath. Jean went on to tell us that she lived with an older couple; that Joan lived with a family a few miles away; and that on Sundays they’d walk to meet each other halfway and visit They were both happy, but Joan had four young children to help care for and was quite busy. I help out around the house and am learning how to cook and clean. I even get to eat with the family. Come spring, I might be looking for work in town. Joan and I won’t be attending high school; didn’t much like school anyway.
My heart sank as I read the last part. The very thought of not going to high school was almost more than I could bear. “I’ll throw myself across the railroad tracks if they don’t let us go!” “Maybe the Children’s Aid will take us away too,” Betty mused.
“Who knows? But it sure would be nice to get away from here.”
After brooding over our future for a few moments, I put Jean’s card over our headboard as we settled down to reply to her letter. “We have to be careful what we say because she’s probably gonna read it.”
At breakfast Betty handed the letter to Mrs. Bender for her to mail.
“I bet she won’t even mail it,” I grumbled as we hurried out of the house. “She’ll probably use it to start the fire.”
We waited eagerly each day for another letter from Jean or perhaps one from Joan, but nothing arrived, and we never heard from them.
Christmas Day came, and we were hoping for some extra privileges now that there were just the two of us. Perhaps we’d be allowed to eat Christmas dinner with the family, we thought, but it didn’t happen. We were called down for our usual bag of nuts and fruit, and May gave us each a chocolate bar. Minutes later we returned to our room and waited impatiently for our supper plates to be put on the bottom step. Near the end of January, the social worker stopped by for a visit, and for the first time ever, Mrs. Bender let us sit on the sofa in her living room. She had already primed us as to how we should answer any questions, so we felt very awkward and uncomfortable as we sat on the edge of the seat and tried to answer the questions the lady asked. When the ordeal was over, we returned at once to our room.
The Children’s Aid Report stated: We saw the girls and find it difficult to discuss their ideas as they appear too painfully shy and unable to express themselves, but sit stiffly, glancing at the foster mother and often merely smiling in answer to a question. We are not sure what is the cause of this subdued manner. There is a certain furtiveness in Mrs. Bender’s manner that is disturbing, though this may be her natural way.
Bonnie Virag has lived the life of a foster care child being bounced around from one foster home to another mainly for the work and money that foster parents could extract from the system. I feel these life experiences give me the necessary credentials to write my book: The Stovepipe.
To learn more visit www.bonnievirag.com