Some of you may be familiar with Ruth Adam from her second novel, I'm Not Complaining (1938), which was an early Virago reprint, or from her wonderful historical look at the changing roles of women in A Woman's Place 1910-1975 (1975), available from Persephone. Or you might already have read about two of her more obscure works—the wartime mystery Murder in the Home Guard (1942) and the charming late novel A House in the Country (1957)—on this blog (see here). I find her a consistently interesting author, largely because her work is always informed by a vibrant awareness of social issues, but also because of her attention to detail and to the humorous absurdities of her characters' situations. She doesn't shy away from reality or provide easy answers to her characters' problems, but she also doesn't hesitate to find the humor in them.
As with most of my authors, little enough information about Adam's lesser-known fiction is available (and online searches are plagued with irrelevant results because of the ordinariness of her name—Ruth Adams and Ruth Adamses abound in staggering numbers). But I've always been struck by ODNB's passing reference to two of her other late novels and their inspiration:
In 1955 Ruth Adam, with her friend the London county councillor Peggy Jay, co-founded the Fisher Group, a think-tank on social policy and the family which gave evidence to government committees of inquiry and contributed to such legislative reforms as the 1963 and 1969 Children and Young Persons Acts and the Local Authority Social Service Act of 1970. Arising out of this concern Ruth Adam wrote her disturbing novels Fetch Her Away (1954) and Look Who's Talking (1960) about girls in care, which are rare in their sympathetic depiction of women social workers.
I was a wee bit ambivalent about these novels, which sounded rather like those old TV movies-of-the-week that tackled pressing issues of the day (usually in completely reductive terms). But I knew I could rely on Adam not to be overly reductive, at least, and probably to make even an issue close to her heart interesting and entertaining. Fetch Her Away is hardly a novel I would recommend to everyone, but if you have an interest in the hardships of neglected children and the workers who attempt—hope against hope—to help them, then it's quite an interesting portrayal.
Just FYI, some unavoidable spoilers here, though I doubt if they would come as a great surprise to anyone who reads the first 20 pages of the novel.
The story centers around Suzanne, a young girl whose mother is dead and whose rather superficial stepmother, as the novel begins, is leaving her abusive husband and moving on to what she imagines will be greener pastures, and around Jackie Duffie, a child welfare worker who tries first to reunite the family with assistance, then to find a suitable foster home for Suzanne, and finally, as the years pass, to find a home for a pregnant Suzanne and a man she barely knows.
It's a bleak story, but a realistic one, which effectively delineates all the forces that keep the cycle of neglect and despair churning. And sadly, it doesn't seem as though this cycle has changed very drastically in the intervening 60 years since the novel was written, though drugs and violence have undoubtedly increased and further complicated matters. However, although one is likely to feel a bit sad and thoughtful upon finishing Fetch Her Away, there are some excellent examples of Adam's charm and humor scattered here and there throughout, particularly in relation to the workers and others trying to help Suzanne.
Here, for example, are Jackie's musings on the perils of temporarily removing children from troubled homes:
It was risky to offer to take a child "for a time," because it always turned out to be a remarkably long time. The working-classes had just discovered a fact which had been known to the aristocracy for hundreds of years, and to the middle-classes for a century or so-that family life is a lot less trouble if you arrange to have your children brought up by paid officials at a comfortable distance away from home. They looked upon the Children's Department as a free boarding-school. Once you housed an unwanted child, the parents were liable to settle down happily without it until it reached years of discretion.
And here we see how her work deprives her even of the most popular method of fighting insomnia:
Jackie turned the pillow over a hundred times, in the hope of discovering a comfortable side to it. She watched the car-lights loom up and recede across her window, listened to the chanting of late revellers and counted the chimes of the clock. She even descended to counting sheep jumping through a gap, until she found she was separating them into possible boarding-out and definitely institutional sheep. Still she was obstinately wakeful.
And finally, the passage that most made me laugh, from late in the novel, here's Jackie seeking help from a powerful and immensely practical community organizer:
"I know," said Jackie. "But if no one can do anything, I have an awful feeling that Robert and Suzanne are doomed to go on repeating the pattern—deserting as they were deserted, betraying as they were betrayed. It's exactly like one of those old families which have a curse on them that goes on in each generation and no one can ever get away from."
Mrs. Hardy looked doubtful. So far as she had ever thought about family curses, she had supposed that they could be cleared up by re-housing the family in uncursed premises and perhaps turning the old place into a youth hostel or even a Child Guidance Clinic. But she got Jackie's point.
Fetch Her Away is not, then, a novel that most of you will want to rush out and read for yourselves, but it's certainly an interesting one in relation to Adam's other work. She was clearly an author who was passionate about improving the problems she saw around her, and applied her efforts to entertaining fiction that she must have hoped would help readers understand them better.
I'm hoping to also track down Adam's So Sweet a Changeling, apparently also published in 1954, which one reviewer described as an "[a]musingly told story of the unauthorised adoption of an illegitimate baby." And there's one of her novels, 1947's Set to Partners, that seems to be completely inaccessible, which you know only makes me more intrigued—I don't even have a clue about its subject matter. (I've been lucky in finding a couple of her rare early works, though I've been grossly remiss about writing about them here—mea culpa and hopefully I can rectify that at some point.)