Orphans

Joan Aiken

Little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue
An’ the lampwick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo,
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightning-bugs in dew is all squenched away –
You better mind yer parents and yer teachers fond and dear
An’ cherish them ’at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ’at clusters all about
Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you, ef you don’t watch out!

James Whitcomb Riley, who wrote the above embarrassing and disgusting verse, was, of course, voicing what was, in the 19th century, considered a very proper and creditable sentiment. (The poem came out in his Rhymes of Childhood in 1890.) It contains, as well, an implicit threat – the orphan’s sinister power:

An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high.

Orphans can cast the evil eye on us; their bad luck may be communicable. But what Riley was primarily saying was then considered perfectly acceptable: the poor and unfortunate were put here by divine dispensation so that luckier people could acquire merit by exercising charity towards them. Such Victorian sentiments have now, in this enlightened age, gone by the board. Our views on destitution have been drastically revised. There, but for the grace of God ... But we can’t help being fascinated by misfortune. News stories about widows or parentless children invariably make headlines. ‘Everybody loves an orphan,’ a market-research-wise colleague with whom I once shared an office in an advertising agency said when I told her I proposed calling one of my books The Orphans of Willoughby. ‘That’s a real selling title,’ she added approvingly. (Actually, the publishers thought it insufficiently exciting.)

Why are we so immediately interested in orphans? Because they arouse in us a feeling of power. We love our friends better when they are divorced or bereaved, because we know they need us. We even feel faintly resentful when they manage to pull themselves together and found new ménages and stand on their feet again. Discreditable – but so it is. A dove forlorn and lost with sick unprunèd wing is everybody’s darling, welcome in any household, because we can manifest benevolence at little cost, and because she makes a useful babysitter. Our lonely friends are dear to us because, at bottom, we need them as much as they need us – maybe even a little more. This, I am convinced, is one of the reasons, and quite a basic one, for the universal interest in orphans. We need them to bolster our insecurity, and we can simultaneously bury our own need under the comfortable feeling that we are doing them a very good turn. Little Orphant Annie, if you recall, had to work uncommonly hard to repay the charity of the Whitcomb Riley family:

An’ wash the cups and saucers up an’ brush the crumbs away
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch an’ dust the hearth an’ sweep
An’ make the fire an’ bake the bread an’ earn her board-an’-keep,

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