In They Cage the Animals at Night, Burch tells the story of his life in foster homes and institutions and presents a gripping autobiography of an ordinary person who persevered against adversity. In doing so, he not only creates a picture of a small, sad, lonely, and innocent young boy but also presents a social commentary on the places where children are taken and the reasons that they are sent there.
Written when Burch was in his early forties, this fictionalized autobiography contains Burch’s recollections of his life from ages eight to twelve. Taking a child’s point of view, Burch tells his story in the first person, with much reconstructed realistic dialogue not only for himself but for all the characters. Although Burch explains that he has changed the names of the people and the institutions, there is no indication of the extent to which the events or the characters are composites or are fictionalized. The reader must guess about the author’s personal bias toward the events and the other characters and must assume that the recollections are factually accurate and authentic.
Burch’s work is a study in contrasts. He graphically depicts the pain, suffering, and stark realities of orphanages and foster homes. While there is no sexual abuse, there is mental or emotional abuse, as well as some physical abuse. Burch remembers how, as a child, he was unable to control his own life or to understand what was happening to him. Over and over, he stresses the...
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Although originally written for adults and featured as an alternate by the Literary Guild and the Doubleday Book Club, They Cage the Animals at Night was selected by the young adult services division of the American Library Association as one of the best books in 1984 for young adults. While there are some realistic fiction books for young adults that are set in foster homes and orphanages, Burch’s book is one of the few biographies or autobiographies to deal exclusively with the subject of the custodial care of children.
With its vivid, authentic portrayal of institutional life, Burch’s autobiography has been compared to a novel by Charles Dickens. As Dickens sought to arouse his readers about the plight of orphans in Victorian England with Oliver Twist (18371839), Burch attempts to jolt a modern audience from its complacency and to point out the suffering of many forgotten children. Although the author writes of his experiences of the early 1950’s, little had changed within the institutionalized child-care system by 1984, and this book has come to be recognized as more than a single, isolated case study. Burch’s powerful, gripping autobiography will appeal to teenage readers and keep their interest while it presents an honest account of the realities of life in foster homes and orphanages.