Orphans raised by student mothers

At the Sun-Gazette, staff members tend to read. A lot. So we thought we would share what we’re reading and let you know how they fare.

Staffer: Tara D. McKinney, correspondent

What I read: “The Irresistible Henry House,” by Lisa Grunwald

Synopsis: Orphan babies are used as practice infants to teach students how to be mothers.

This is part of the home economics major at Wilton College and is a completely accepted notion in the middle of the 20th century. Henry House is one of these babies.

He is raised by a bi-weekly cycle of student “mothers” as well as Martha Gaines, the emotionally damaged program director. In the pre-Dr. Benjamin Spock era, mothers are discouraged from holding their babies too much and fixing a rigid schedule for feeding and sleeping.

Henry, even as an infant, makes each woman feel as though her attention is what he needs most. Martha Gaines becomes obsessed with the idea of keeping Henry, even though the normal practice is to adopt practice babies out to families when they reach toddlerhood.

Martha raises Henry as her son, without officially adopting him. This creates tension and resentment from Henry towards Martha and increased guilt and neediness from Martha towards Henry. Henry is unable to feel real affection for anyone and gradually stops talking altogether.

This is seen by his educators as a defect and he is packed off to a boarding school for troubled youth far from Martha’s grasping demands for his love. At boarding school he develops his talent for drawing along with his innate ability to attract and please women, without uttering a single word.

The book follows Henry through his boarding school years, his lucky break at Walt Disney Studios and his exodus to London – cataloging his many lovers and fractured relationships with Martha and his birth mother.

Henry is lavished with love by many, but unable to love anyone back.

Will Henry ever be able to feel love rather than just lust?

Was Martha Gaines wrong to keep Henry rather than let him be adopted out?

How do Henry’s attempts at love prepare him for the real thing?

Is physical affection the key ingredient to raising a well-adjusted child?

Stats: Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks in 2011, 448 pages.

What I thought: When I first started reading it, I was flabbergasted by the idea of a real baby being passed around to different mother figures for the first two years of its life.

Then I was completely shocked when I read that this was a common practice in the ’40s and ’50s at Cornell University, as well as other universities in the United States.

I just couldn’t believe that human beings were used this way. Lisa Grunwald’s book illustrates the possible consequences of the practice and the ripple effect that follows.

It was hard to read about Henry’s feelings of isolation because of his non-traditional upbringing. Martha Gaines lies to him about his birth parents.

This proves to be such a big mistake that it spoils their relationship when Henry finds out the truth. I was so annoyed with Martha. I felt like she made some terrible choices without giving any thought to the consequences, but so did Henry’s birth mother and his grandfather.

Martha Gaines neediness just about smothered Henry to death and I completely sympathized with him when he stopped talking to get out from under Martha’s thumb.

As a reader, I felt the pressure of her cloying love and the despair Henry felt as he tries his best to get away from her. At the same time, Henry is such a manipulative player that he disgusted me too. It was hard to find anyone I actually liked in the book.

Lisa Grunwald’s descriptions of the small college town, New England boarding school, Walt Disney Studios and London in the swinging ’60s were very detailed and believable.

I especially liked the intimate look behind the screen at Disney and Henry’s trip to visit his oldest friend who goes to University of California, Berkeley.

The ending kind of left me hanging, which I like and hate at the same time.

Grunwald didn’t spell out what happened next, but rather left the reader with a tiny grain of hope that things would turn out for Henry.

The book was so absorbing that I read it in a day, but it isn’t what I would consider an uplifting read.

Only pick it up if you are completely fine with reading a depressing book that spans three decades in one sitting.

What I’m reading next: “Smiles to Go,” by Jerry Spinelli.