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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 174-184

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Orphaned, Adopted, and Abducted: Parents and Children in
Twentieth-Century America

Shafali Lal

Julie Berebitsky, Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.
Paula S. Fass, Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

After September 11, 2001, very few parents will recall last spring's top news story concerning six-year-old Elian Gonzalez. Most parents, however, will still send their children off to school with warnings regarding strangers, kidnappers, or sexual predators. Historians looking back on the turning of the twentieth century will link all of these events—commonplace and unusual, local and global—into one portrait revelatory of our society's valuation of children and the multiple meanings Americans attached to kith and kin. That extended relatives, federal officials, the president of the United States, and even the Supreme Court ultimately played a role in determining young Elian's home did seem extraordinary last year, yet it would not have surprised [End Page 174] the residents of Clifton-Morenci, Arizona, one hundred years ago. As historian Linda Gordon brilliantly reminds us, battles over children have always involved forces far larger than the seemingly private family, no less so at the beginning of the century than at the end. In our own age of divorced parents, surrogate parents, blended families, and stepchildren, it seems inevitable that struggles over children cause media frenzies in the midst of tremendous personal pain and strife. At such moments of high drama and round-the-clock television coverage, the nation seems gripped with the collective fears and feelings of parents everywhere. Yet, as Julie Berebitsky, Paula Fass, and Gordon demonstrate, exactly who felt or indeed could feel the fears and joys of parenthood has never been simply a matter of biology.

Each of these authors attempts to historicize the relationships between parents and children and to situate these bonds within larger webs of race, class, and nation. The authors share a similar historical conceit: describing the atypical or the "aberrant" in order to reveal the boundaries of the "normal." By focusing on the external pressures upon and internal bonds within a variety of families, the authors advance our understandings of private life, public policy, and cultural conceptions of the rights and responsibilities of twentieth-century parents.

Taken together, the authors represent how far the historical study of children and the family has come since Philippe Ariès's pathbreaking Centuries of Childhood. 1 As well, the books suggest important new directions for the field in general. Rather than getting mired in the irretrievability of children's voices and experiences—the thrust of much new work on children—these authors use different lenses to view adult interventions into children's lives, expanding the links between studies of labor, media, welfare, and gender and children's history. 2 The study of children has historically had natural allies in women's and gender history; by sidestepping questions of youth agency and subjectivity, Fass, Berebitsky, and Gordon illuminate the central role children play in structuring the national polity. At their best, these works combine sophisticated gender analysis with nuanced cultural criticism and provide new insights into the politics of work, welfare, and public policy. Because minors have often been potent sites of local and federal intervention, their plasticity as subjects allows scholars to see "the world in a grain of sand." 3 The sand these three historians sift through is complex and, indeed, revelatory.

In Kidnapped, Paula Fass takes child kidnappings as her specific grain. Since 1874, she contends, abductions of children "have provided the occasion for Americans to discuss an array of social issues: family and parenting, sexuality and gender, policing and law enforcement, criminality and insanity, community norms and the role of the state" (257). Ultimately, as difficult as the task may be, Fass's book explores "the intersection between personal pain and social meaning" (5). This focus allows...


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pp. 174-184
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Archived 2004
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