Maryland-born author Carol Peacock describes living conditions in the poorest Chinese orphanages with a dispassionate eye.
Her new novel, "Red Thread Sisters," describes playgrounds strewn with old tires and a caste system that divides children perceived to be adoptable from those judged by orphanage officials as less appealing. The novel depicts children so eager for their own clothes that they wear multiple gift outfits at once. In the book, young children routinely perform such adult chores as feeding babies and scrubbing kitchen floors.
But Peacock also shows the fierce bonds that can form between the children and attendants who truly love the youngsters under their charge.
What's surprising is that these challenging issues are presented not in a novel for adults, but in a children's book targeted at youngsters ages 8 to 12. In a phone interview, the 64-year-old author and psychologist, who now lives near Boston, spoke about the inspirations for her sixth book.
The jacket for "Red Thread Sisters" says that you drew on your own experience as the adoptive mother of two Chinese-born daughters for this story.
This book took me about seven years to write and is the book I feel the most strongly about. My daughters were adopted as infants, and when Katherine was 11 and Elizabeth was 10, we decided to go to China so the girls could see their birth country. It was a wonderful trip. We returned to the orphanage where the girls had lived, and the caretakers still remembered them.
When we were there, I began to observe the older girls who had disabilities who would never be adopted. In China, when you have your 14th birthday, you "age out" and are no longer eligible for adoption. I observed these girls' strong, strong friendships and also their longing for a family, and I came back totally stirred up.
Did your daughters live in an orphanage like the one described in the book?
In China, there are government-approved orphanages that are the showcases, and the ones that aren't approved. Our daughters came from one of the better orphanages, but I wanted to write about one of the poorer ones. So I started doing an enormous amount of research, and it took a very long time. Every single thing that I put in that story is true.
You describe the living conditions so vividly I thought you'd observed them firsthand.
Thank you. I started with listservs put out by the adoption community. I put together two surveys about the children's lives in the orphanages and how they had adjusted to the United States. Some parents filled out both surveys. Eventually, I developed a subgroup of women who have adopted four or five older children with special needs.
I wanted to know everything: the games their children had played in China, the chores they did, their education, the clothes they wore, what they talked about. I wanted to know about the food they ate. I wanted to know that in the orphanages in the south of China, the children eat noodles, while in orphanages in the north, they eat rice.
I've come to think of these women as my dear friends, although I've never met them.
What in your research surprised you the most?
I think it was what happens to these kids when they're too old to live in orphanages any more. In China, orphan children are considered to be kind of cursed, especially disabled children.
After I finished writing "Red Thread Sisters," I asked a dear friend to be the first person to edit the book. Six months later, Suzanne sold her prized collection of bell chimes and flew to China to rescue a child who was ready to age out.
Many of your books tackle social welfare issues. Do you see yourself as a psychologist who writes, or as an author who practices psychotherapy?
The former. I grew up in Rockville. My father was a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, and my mother was a homemaker.
I wanted to be a writer since I was 11 years old and first read "The Diary of Anne Frank." I've read it every year since.
I moved to Cambridge [Mass.] in 1972, and started working with delinquent girls who were involved in the court system. I started taking notes because they said such interesting things, and at one point, I realized I had a lot of notes.
I published my first book at age 30 based on my life experience of working with these girls. It was called "Hand Me Down Dreams" and it was optioned for a movie by CBS. The would-be producers flew me down to Hollywood and asked how I'd feel if Meryl Streep were to play the character based on me.
Though none of it ever happened, by then it didn't much matter. I've never been so thrilled in my life.