THE DAY THEY GAVE BABIES AWAY by Dale Eunson tells the story of his father's childhood, mainly focused on the Christmas immediately after Robbie Eunson's parents died. Robbie's parents had been Scottish immigrants who settled along the Fox River in Eureka,WI. They worked hard, Robert, Sr., as both a lumberman and a boat builder. Soon the family had grown to six children, three boys, followed by three girls. When Robbie was around 11 or 12, the youngest brother Kirk came down with diphtheria. Since it is highly contagious and often fatal, Mr. Eunson took his other children out of the home to an isolated cabin, while his wife remained to nurse Kirk. Kirk's eventual recovery was met with great relief, and Robbie remembers that the only time the kids saw their father cry was when he received news that Kirk was better and that the family could reunite. Sadly, Robert, Sr. became ill shortly after their return and died within days.
Imagine being a woman in 1868 Wisconsin caring for six children all alone. Like many, Mrs. Eunson was illiterate when she arrived in America and only learned to read when her children did.
Her own health quickly deteriorated and by December 1868, she knew she was dying. She called son Robbie to her and shared quietly that she would not recover. As was her wish, Robbie pledged that he would personally see that each of his siblings would be placed in homes where they would be loved and cherished. He was also supposed to try to place them in homes which already had children so they would not be lonely. Clearly Mrs. Eunson knew that no one would be able to take on all 6 children. Robbie also knew that at age twelve he was considered old enough to work and survive on his own.
This book began as a story written in the 1940s for Cosmopolitan magazine when Dale
Eunson was editor there. Soon after it was rewritten and published as a book. Several editions have been published; the one I read was published in 1990 as a children's book. The story is indeed quite short and simple, but it is very moving. I saw the story mentioned on Facebook as a story that someone read every Christmas, and I can see why. As I began to search for the book, I realized that it was set in Eureka, a small community in Wisconsin about an hour from us. That really peaked my interest. After Mrs. Eunson dies, the villagers feel obligated to see the children are placed somewhere quickly, probably in a nearby orphanage. Robbie convinces the adults to let the children spend Christmas eve and Christmas day in their family home (a cabin) one last time. As soon as the adults leave and the younger children are in bed, Robbie and his brother fly into action. Robbie's plan is to take the children, one at a time, to the homes of families he has chosen for each child and "give the sibling away" as a gift. For Robbie believes that no one can turn away a babe on the day of Christ's birth. The rest of the book tells why Robbie chose certain villagers for each of his siblings. You will smile at his reasoning, perhaps even laugh a little, but underlying the whole story is the sweet sadness of a young man, a boy really, carrying out his mother's wishes because he loved her and his father.
When I first heard of the book a few weeks ago, I also learned that it had been made into a movie in 1956 titled ALL MINE TO GIVE. Perhaps because this is part of Fox Valley's history, I found a library in our Winnefox library system (which covers most of the Fox Valley) which had a dvd of the movie. After reading the book (really that takes only 30 minutes or less), I watched the movie with hubby. I liked that the movie followed the book so closely; often the script matched dialogue from the book word for word. Now you need to remember that the movie is a 1950's movie and the settings may seem a bit hokey for today's standards, and I got a good chuckle when a panoramic shot of the cabin showed mountains in the background. Winnebago County with mountains ?? But otherwise I enjoyed the movie. Russ and I were curious enough after viewing the movie that we wanted to find out just how much of it was true. It was an easy search and we found information from both historical societies and newspapers confirming this tale of early Wisconsin.
Here are some links:
Why not share this tale of others seeking shelter, love, and a home on Christmas Eve with
your loved ones. I can see from Amazon that the book is out of print and that older copies have quite
a hefty price tag. Perhaps a library near you has a copy or you can read a version of the story on
the Winnebago County historical society sight. The movie may be easier to find. I'd be curious to hear if anyone reading this posting has heard of the story.