"Hope's Boy": Inspirational memoir

February 13, 2008 12:34:11 PM PST
The initial allure of Andrew Bridge's memoir lies in the curious question of how a boy, taken from his mentally ill mother at the age of 7 and raised in a loveless foster home, could defy the odds and eventually graduate from Harvard Law School.

But along the way, "Hope's Boy" becomes something deeper. Bridge gives the reader an insightful glimpse into the troubled lives of foster children who are swallowed by bureaucracy, eventually to be dropped into adulthood with few marketable skills and no childhood to claim as their own.

Bridge doesn't sugarcoat his own youth. He unflinchingly recounts an early memory of his twentysomething mother Hope, strapped for cash, taking him along as she and a friend try to break into a house at night. Later, he describes digging through garbage cans for food and fighting with a cat for the scraps that become his dinner.

Despite his early struggles and the voices in his mother's head, the author's love for his overwhelmed mom is apparent. He yearns for Hope, years after the county declares her unfit and whisks him away into state care. But he describes Southern California's foster-care system as more a juvenile prison than a refuge for children who have nothing else.

These are the vignettes that are most stirring. Bridge's story, we know early on, has a happy ending. But what of the other countless foster kids lost in the shadows? The reader's optimism for Bridge is tempered by the grim realization that there are many more like him who don't have the opportunities he had.

Even Bridge's opportunities were limited. His foster family gives him shelter but little emotional support, as they're apparently more interested in their monthly stipends from the county than in his life. He describes the ache of never feeling accepted, of never feeling that he can call their home his own - a chasm magnified when the family accepts another foster boy who is more explicit in his pleas for love and attention and is more devastated when those pleas go unanswered.

Bridge waits a little too long to answer the initial question: How did he become the exception and find success? It's late in the book when he describes how he was eager to establish an identity in his otherwise anonymous life. So he throws himself into his schoolwork, parlaying his efforts into good grades and eventually the class presidency.

The rawest emotion Bridge shares is when he applies to college. He describes the standard essays he wrote, but includes what he says would have been his most honest essay had he written it then. In a single page he lays bare the full pain and isolation of his childhood, but he writes it with a tone of acceptance and quiet confidence.

The book's positive ending is made happier as we find that Bridge is using his legal education to help foster kids.

The author's writing is lucid but sometimes too descriptive. He frequently describes events from his early childhood with such intricate detail that a skeptical reader might wonder whether some of those details are embellishments. But the big picture remains clear.

"Hope's Boy" is an uplifting tale, and certainly not the only one to come from the foster system. But beyond the inspiration, Bridge adds a not-so-subtle call to improve an inadequate service, for as he makes clear, he's not the only foster child who lies awake at night waiting for Hope to take him home.