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Book Review

‘Philomena’ offers backstory and insight to its film version


Book 013014Courtesy of Beaverdale Books

Review by Sally Wisdom

Penguin Books

Nov. 6, 2013


CNA - Stop HIV Iowa

448 pp.

The somewhat fictionalized story of Philomena Lee, a young Irish woman who was forced by circumstance to relinquish her 3-year-old son, is masterfully told in the movie “Philomena,” starring Dame Judi Dench in the title role. Readers hoping for a print version of the film may be disappointed by this book, “Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search.” But those who left the movie hungry to learn more about her son will find it enormously satisfying.

Unmarried and pregnant, teenaged Philomena was sent to a “mother and baby home” run by Catholic nuns. She gave birth and remained there for three years working in the convent’s kitchen or laundry and spending limited amounts of time with their babies. With the complicity of the Irish government, the church arranged for the children to be adopted, mostly by American families, in return for substantial donations.

The film follows Philomena’s search for the son she had named Anthony and chronicles his adult life as a man who was renamed Michael Hess by his adoptive family. But the book fills in gaps between his flight from Ireland, at the age of 3, to his success as a Washington, D.C., attorney and chief counsel to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, though he’s plagued by murky memories and a sense of abandonment, which nibble at his psyche throughout his life. Philomena and Michael were desperately trying to find each other, those with the knowledge and opportunity to reunite them denied knowing their whereabouts, yet Philomena was remarkably able to make the emotionally healthy choice to forgive. This is a haunting story well told by the journalist who assisted Philomena in her quest. CV

Sally Wisdom retired from the Des Moines Public Library in 2011. She loves having the time to both read and go to movies!

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