In 1990, a young boy named Vanya was born with possible cerebral palsy. Left in an orphanage, the young boy was relegated to an overcrowded ward where he and his fellow inmates received minimal care and even less in the way of love. Clad in rags and often left alone for long periods of time, Vanya makes it plain that he is quite bright. He makes overtures to the other children and even to the staff. Sadly, many of the children are physically abused at worst, neglected and ignored at best.
The sad thing about these Kafkaesque institutions that would make even Dickens cringe is that many of the children are ignored to the point where they no longer function. They are kept confined and, as they age out of the nursery are relegated to asylums where they often serve the remainder of their lives. The "internat" as these hellholes/asylums are called are nothing short of horrifying and appalling. They are, as another reviewer on the U.S. boards aptly stated, little more than concentration camps. Sadly, staff in such places have not received training and are coming in with a Stalinist approach. Vanya even served time in such an institution, left to simmer in his own waste as he was often kept confined.
Vanya lucks into a kind new ward worker. She shows the children affection, but is reprimanded for her efforts. She does notice the bright young boy with the smile and the ready questions. Vanya is special.
In addition to the kind ward staffer, Vanya meets another angel. Her name is Sarah Philips and she works to secure his release from Baby House 10. He makes overtures to Sarah, who is captivated by him. That is a turning point in both of their lives. Sarah encourages her husband Alan, a photojournalist to use the media on behalf of Vanya and his fellow inmates. Sarah and her friend Vika, a Russian volunteer save Vanya from the hellhole where he is incarcerated.
The resilient young survivor becomes part of a large movement of foster parents. Offers to adopt Vanya start coming in. The winner was a woman named Paula. She is an educator and psychologist with a Russian background. She is the ideal fit and match for her new son. Once in America, Vanya becomes John and is "Americanized." John's life in Pennsylvania is a 180 turn around from the horrific and alarming conditions he knew in the orphanage and snakepit. In time, he becomes a Boy Scout. He is prepared at all times - his resilience, no doubt a survival mechanism he finely honed in the orphanage serves him well in his new environment.
This is a beautiful story that will probably make you cry. John's bright success stands out in stark contrast to the life he once knew. The book is written in a clear, straightforward style. Although the horrors of John's early life can never be minimized, the undercurrent and undertone of hope runs throughout the book. It is what makes readers want to know more.
Thanks to the efforts of Sarah Philips and Kay Bratt (who was directly involved with an orphanage in China), as well as a 2009 expose on the atrocities of abuse and neglect that are currently taking place in the Czech republic, foundations and organazations have been started with the idea of liberating children from these conditions and providing a healthy enviroment in which they have a chance to thrive and survive. We can only hope that books such as this and Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage will spur many more people to action. Another reviewer made a good point - we DO need organizations like Amnesty International who rescue people who have been wrongly incarcerated.
"On Eagle's Wings" is the perfect soundtrack for this book.
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