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 importance of learning the rules in order to survive the depressing, dehumanizing child-care system. He vividly describes the helplessness and the fear that he felt as a young child when he was left with no explanation or was sent to a foster home.
Burch uses the situations in which he was placed to point out the insensitivity of well-meaning adults. It was adults who continually failed the children. For example, at a new school, when Burch admitted that he did not know fractions, the teacher ridiculed him in front of the class and made him stand silently facing the blackboard day after day until he “learned” them. In another instance, a well-meaning nun gathered hand-me-downs from the parents of other children in the school and gave them to Burch. She did not realize that the children, seeing Burch in their old clothes, would ridicule him and call...
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