by Ann S. Epstein
Ann S. Epstein’s newest historical novel, The Great Stork Derby, due out Oct. 19, is a gut-wrenching story built upon one of the craziest true events that ever occurred in modern human history: a baby-making contest. The story begins in 1976 with the humiliating image of a curmudgeon who’s fallen on the floor of his decrepit Toronto house and can’t get up. When help finally arrives, the social worker assigned to Emm Benbow gives him two stark choices, either live in a rundown old folks’ home, the only one he can afford, or stay with one of his children. It turns out he has a bunch of them. In 1926, when he was a young, newly married man of salesman disposition and competitive spirit, he talked his sweet, meek wife into entering the high-stakes Great Stork Derby: the Toronto couple that had the most babies within 10 years would win what amounts to a million dollars in today’s currency. The contest was real and the brainchild of Charles Vance Millar, a wealthy man infamous for practical jokes that exploited the greedy. Eleven families took part in this particular “joke.” Of those, four mothers with nine children each took home $110,000 to their respective families. The author does a fabulous job of turning what appears to be a funny sitcom set-up into a familial tragedy through her depiction of Emm as a man more interested in the competition than in actually fathering his children. When his wife died young, he left the rearing of his brood to his mother, a hard-hearted disciplinarian. While the story has wonderful moments of humor, the reader feels the dark reality Emm learns as he moves from living with one of his kids to another: he was a lousy, selfish father who can either die alone, embittered by what he feels his children owe him for housing and clothing them in their youth. Or he can admit his emotional abandonment and build relationships with them. That premise could easily lead to an overly-sweet sentimental movie feel. Instead, the author’s deft treatment of the characters and the complex dynamics between them treats the reader to a truly literary feast in which the heartbreaking exists beside the hope of a man determined to change in the last days of his life.
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