Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories – Harriet And Ellen: Interracial Adoption in Antislavery Children’s Literature (1856)

Sources: Lois. “Harriet and Ellen; or, The Orphan Girls” (1856; repr., Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1865), v. This novel was first published in 1856 and reprinted in 1865. All page numbers refer to the 1865 edition.

Fielder, Brigitte. ““Those People Must Have Loved Her Very Dearly”: Interracial Adoption and Radical Love in Antislavery Children’s Literature.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14, no. 4 (2016): 749-80. Accessed November 22, 2016. doi:10.1353/eam.2016.0027.

“A little-studied, probably white-authored abolitionist children’s novel”

is how Brigitte Fielder of the University of Wisconsin- Madison characterises Harriet and Ellen–  the plot of which revolves around with two young girls who are adopted by white families and loved equally, despite the fact that Harriet is white and Ellen is black. Harriet and Ellen; or, The Orphan Girls was written by an author only known as “Lois”  and published in Ohio, 1856. The story depicts interracial kinships based on contemporary abolitionist conceptions of familial love. “The novel,” Fielder says in the abstract of her paper “Those People Must Have Loved Her Very Dearly,” which is an analysis of Lois’ book, “is a test case against which to evaluate both proslavery and mainstream abolitionist representations of interracial kinship.”

Harriet and Ellen are adopted into white families who love them without distinction of biological parenthood or race. This was the sort of  radical narrative about racism, adoption, family, parenthood, and humanity that was unique to the female-dominated field of abolitionist children’s literature– a field wherein enculturating mothers had a voice to determine what ideals their children would learn during the foundation of their lives. Such books show not what the dominant views of American society were toward race and adoption, but rather what progressive women wanted their children to learn and believe for the future of the United States. Notably, Harriet and Ellen is an anti-racist novel at a time when the progressive focus was on the abolition of slavery, not on challenging white racial superiority. For this reason, Harriet and Ellen is referred to as a radical abolitionist children’s novel. (Fielder, 750)

Harriet and Ellen is primarily an anti-racist anti-slavery novel. Nevertheless, it reveals a shifting attitude in mid-century progressive circles about interracial adoption and adoption in general. Fielder says, “the complexity of [Harriet and Ellen’s] message lies in the recognition of black children as children who can be valued even by nonbiological, white parents…this author advances a model that recognizes the black child as lovable kin—even for white adults” (750). 


4 thoughts on “Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories – Harriet And Ellen: Interracial Adoption in Antislavery Children’s Literature (1856)

  1. It’s interesting that in the 1850s the idea of motherhood not being blood related was already being discussed. I feel like this is a huge issue, where people do not think a baby is “your child” if they do not share the same DNA. I believe in the gospel we are taught that no matter what your DNA is families can be sealed for time and all of eternity. Not having matching DNA doesn’t make a mother’s child any less of her child.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Preach! Totally what the church teaches. But then you also get people (thankfully few) who believe that temple sealings legit physically changes your blood to match your sealed family’s and use that to justify adoption because the makeup of one’s blood is *totally* the important part. *face-palm*

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was really intrigued by this article! I think it’s very interesting how the novel existed as a way for parents to teach their children desired values, and how radical it was to suggest that parents could love their children equally even if they were of different races.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This novel is so interesting that it was able to target both the controversial ideas of adoption and racism. That the parents could love the girls even though they were adopted and love them both equally even though they were different races. This story was probably so important for young adopted children to read during this time period.


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