Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
I was captivated from start to finish by Andrea Ashworth’s autobiography Once in a House on Fire. Ashworth maintained a constant, thrilling pace, skipping from brilliantly rendered vignette to vignette through thirteen years of her childhood.
Ashworth grew up in Manchester, England. When she was five years old her father drowned in a puddle of water on his way home from work. Andrea’s mother grieved while struggling to survive financially as an uneducated and unskilled helper in a nursing home. Fortunately their father’s life insurance policy had paid off their house. Unfortunately, Andrea’s mother soon married a vicious, huge man who didn’t take long before he started beating his new wife and throttling Andrea afterwards with threats that he would kill her if she told anybody about the domestic violence. They had a daughter together and the three girls learned to live in a state of constant control of their movements, words, tone of voice and body language, to try to avoid provoking the beast.
When their parents sold the house in Manchester and followed a fanciful dream of prosperity in Canada, everything became worse. Predictably, the violence worsened but also the family now lived in constant financial vulnerability and risk of homelessness. Back in England, eventually, Andrea’s mother broke off from the beast. She sank into what seemed to be depression before snagging a petty criminal who soon enough descended into a similar pattern of domestic violence as his predecessor.
The neglect by Andrea’s mother was terrible. Not only did she fail to provide her daughters with a safe home environment or protect them from hits to the head, she did not provide them with a nutritious diet or sufficient food, she was inconsistent in her affections towards them, she did not seem to make decisions based on what was best for her daughters, and she relied on Andrea to take care of her younger sisters and as soon as Andrea was 12 she stopped coming home at night at all. When stepfather number one made disgusting, sexual advances on Andrea I had a knot of dread in my stomach.
I read an interview of Ashworth after her autobiography was published where she said that her sisters told her that she toned down the domestic violence in the book. Ashworth agrees with them but said that too much violence would have ruined the book. There was already a lot of violence in the book! That means that their lives were even worse than I thought!
Despite the violent and impoverished childhood, Ashworth used her abundant talents as a writer to make this autobiography enjoyable and occasionally funny to read. She vividly rendered the colours, smells, tastes, feelings and clothing of her 1970s-80s childhood. We can’t know how accurate her recollections are but she delivers them in a way that is believable and suitable for the girl that she was at each stage in the memoir. I thought that it was an excellent book and it has helped me to feel more empathy for people who depend on the welfare system.
This review in The New York Times may interest you too.