My Life in Books: The Bears’ House

Another Marilyn Sachs book, this story is narrated by nine-year-old Fran Ellen, the eldest child in quite a large family. The family’s father is absent, and it seems their mother isn’t coping well with his departure. It’s implied that she’s an alcoholic, but Fran Ellen isn’t really old enough to understand this, she just knows that Mum spends a lot of time in bed. She does understand, however, that if anyone comes to the house and finds out their mother isn’t doing a very good job looking after her kids they will all be taken away and put into foster care. Fran Ellen is so afraid that she and her siblings will be split up when this happens, she does her best to look after the family herself, so no one will discover what kind of state their mother is in.

Fran Ellen has a particular fondness for her baby sister Flora, who she feeds Kool-Aid out of a baby bottle. Flora gets increasingly sick as the book progresses, a fact that worries Fran Ellen but she’s afraid to go to the doctor. Her only solace is the wonderful dolls’ house at her school, in which a family of bears reside. The teacher lets the children play with the bears’ house as a reward for good work or good behaviour. When Fran Ellen plays with it, she transports herself into the house, where the caring bear family love her and offer a security her real life family cannot.

The teacher declares that at the end of the school year, she will give the bears’ house to the most deserving student. Fran Ellen doesn’t think for a moment that it will be her, as there are so many prettier, cleverer and more popular pupils in the class. And yet she is the one the teacher chooses to give the house to. When the teacher gives Fran Ellen and the bears’ house a lift home, she discovers the appalling neglect Fran Ellen and her siblings endure, and Fran Ellen knows that life as she knows it is over.

Part of the attraction of this book for me was the wonderful dolls’ house the bears live in, and I did wish I could be Fran Ellen so I could play with it. But even at the age I was when I read this book (about nine, I think), I recognised that Fran Ellen was having a really hard time at home. This is a very depressing story, about neglect and alcoholism from a child’s point of view, and from Fran Ellen’s perspective it doesn’t end happily. The book ends with her and her siblings being taken into care and sent to separate foster homes.

It had an impact on me, and I think when I wrote SUFFER THE CHILDREN, years later, I was channelling Fran Ellen through Leanne, another character who suffers neglect and who goes out of her way to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities, out of fear of losing the only home she knows.

When I decided to include this book in this blog series I had to look it up on Amazon, because I couldn’t remember who wrote it. I discovered then that Marilyn Sachs wrote a sequel to THE BEARS’ HOUSE, called FRAN ELLEN’S HOUSE, in which Fran Ellen and her siblings are reunited after being separated in foster care, and she tries to restore the fractured relationship they now have to the closeness they had when they all lived together with their alcoholic mother. I think I will need to read this book. I always regretted leaving Fran Ellen in such a sad place at the end of THE BEARS’ HOUSE, and I would like to know if she found happiness.

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