The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss

I don’t remember how old I was when my mom gave me her copy of The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss. She was always giving me books she had loved, and I never wanted to read them because they seemed “old.” But I did read Doss’s book and was delighted to discover how funny it was. There were parts that stuck out to me, such as the theme of finding a boy “just the size of Donny.” I would use that expression constantly and in ways that didn’t make sense: “I need a new sweater just the size of Donny.” Or, “I’m going to bake, so I need a cookie sheet just the size of Donny.” Even today, as I listened to the story about the first all-women spacewalk that was cancelled because NASA didn’t have enough space suits in the right size, I said aloud, “Space suits just the size of Donny.” *facepalm* This habit confused my husband. But let me back up.

Although Doss’s small book is a memoir, I was not aware of that when I first read it. When I was older and learned that there are made up books and real-life books, I was surprised. Helen and Carl Doss were a couple living through the Depression. All Helen wanted was a baby, and all Carl wanted was to be a minister. When a baby didn’t come, they set out to adopt one. That first baby was Donny — a white, blond, blue-eyed boy. Carl was happy, but Helen felt they needed two children, a boy and a girl.

They hit up adoption agencies again, but to no luck. Helen enters a sort of black market, for which doctors identify pregnant mothers who want to give up their baby immediately instead of putting the child in an orphanage first. They locate a baby girl, but at the last minute a nurse forces the birth mother to hold the baby, and then the mother changes her mind about the adoption. Helen is crushed.

It isn’t until Helen learns that there are unwanted babies, deemed unadoptable, that the story becomes a high-speed run-away train. Susie is another white baby, with blond hair and blue eyes. But she is sickly and has a large birthmark on her face. Unadoptable for flaws. At the same time, the Doss’s learn about Laura, who had a Filipino-Chinese mother and English-French father. Unadoptable for being mixed-race. Carl and Helen take them both home.

Donny the toddler is an utter handful, running around, losing things (shoes, himself, etc.) and causing problems. He realizes that the two girl babies have each other, but. . . THERE’S NO ONE THE SIZE OF HIM. So, the hunt for a boy just the size of Donny begins. Instead, the Doss’s find Teddy, a Filipino-Malayan-Spanish boy (Unadoptable: mixed-race) just the size of Susie and Laura. The Doss’s take him home. Then Rita, a Mexican-Indian girl (Unadoptable: mixed-race) is adopted.

Time passes. Now Carl and Helen Doss have a four-year-old Donny and four two-year-old children. The family lives pre-washing machines and dish washers and plastic diapers. Helen is up to her ears in chores and children, both happy and miserable (I think that’s what all moms feel like?). This combo of children — the five of them — is my favorite section of the book. They just get into so much great trouble, and Helen Doss recounts their stories realistically, beautifully, and cleverly.

For example, Carl is away at school to become a minister. Meanwhile, Helen and the five children attempt to survive a Midwestern winter (back when things really froze and snow was relentless like we no longer see thanks to climate change). She struggles to keep the furnace going just right (they couldn’t be too hot or too cold for fear of breaking the unit — my own great-grandmother told me about this). One day, the whole house stinks of rubber. Somehow, the children got hold of a box of balloons, that Helen says should have lasted ten years if used frugally, and dumped them down a heating vent in the floor. The balloons are now melting on top of the furnace. Helen opens a door to let the smoke out, but instead snow just flies in. Wanting to check on the furnace but with no one to watch the children, the following happens:

I plunked Donny into a big chair, lined the four younger ones in a row on the couch, and gave each a picture book. “Now everybody read, until Mama comes back.”

“Me can’t read,” Rita piped up.

“None of you can,” I said. “Just look at the pictures.” . . .

[When she came back upstairs after checking on the furnace, Helen] found Donny had borrowed a box of rolled-oats cereal from the kitchen, and had sprinkled it over the puddles of melted snow on the floor. Coughing and choking the children were stirring the oats with their fingers and shaping crumbly patties.

“We finished our books,” Donny explained.

“We make tookies,” Susie lisped.

Helen Doss captures the quick exchanges from that moment, making her children come to life and stirring the sympathies of readers who are both frustrated with Doss and laughing with the children.

An important component of The Family Nobody Wanted is the racism and xenophobia of 1940s United States. While Carl’s and Helen’s families accept these adopted children, they are adamant that if the Doss’s ever adopt an African American child, that little one isn’t welcome in the house.

Case workers don’t make things easy, either, as they are misinformed. In one instance, a woman argues why it’s a mistake to adopt mixed-race children:

Susie not only belongs to the dominant race, but also has beautiful blue eyes and blond hair. How will poor little Rita feel, when the neighbor girls invite Susie to their birthday parties, their dances and slumber parties, and Rita isn’t asked? And later, when Susie has dates, and Rita hasn’t? . . .

Then [Rita] flitted out through the back of the house and returned with a glass jar containing some ladybugs.

“She’s a budding entomologist,” I explained.

Rita climbed into the lady’s lap, her black eyes sparkling and beautiful, her creamy-brown face lighted with her vivacity. “You like my baby bugs?” she asked. “I keeps them in a bopple, den I puts them in the gar-den.”

I’m quoting a length, which I don’t usually do, because I love Doss’s writing style. Notice how she writes Rita’s voice: “baby bugs” instead of “lady bugs,” and “bopple” instead of “bottle.” Even the way Doss lists the caseworker’s complaints captures a woman with a clipped tone who is certain that no girl with brown skin will even be accepted, which makes the scene more real.

The memoir goes on; it has to, because the Doss’s have not yet found a boy just the size of Donny. OMG. Adoption agencies keep reaching out to them to take “unadoptable” children out of the system, such as Timmy (a Mexican-Japanese two-year-old boy), Alex (a Japanese-Burmese-Korean baby), and half sisters Elaine (Japanese-Balinese-French-Irish) and Diane (Chinese-Hawaiian, East Indian-Malayan-French-Irish). People start talking about the Doss family and their nine children. Life magazine does a spread on them, and later they win a family-of-the-year contest for which they receive toys and all the appliances that make life easier (washer, dryer, dishwasher).

The house the family moved to in California in 1953. Photo by Pat McArron.

But this damn Donny just won’t stop! There is no boy just the size of Donny in the Doss family. Carl, who has not wanted most of these children (he loves them, but it’s too many on a minister’s salary), tries to put his foot down, but Helen is relentless. Eventually, Carl asks how getting more children is fair to the children they have, as resources and attention are spread thin. I wondered the same question! — especially when nine children and two adults ride in one station wagon. I think any reasonable person would start to get angry at this point in the memoir.

But, it’s important to remember this: the United States shoved anyone with Japanese ancestry in internment camps. They moved tribes to reservations and forced the children into boarding schools to make the assimilate. African Americans were still publicly hanged. Anyone who didn’t fit in was sent to a “lunatic asylum.” It’s then I realized to what extent the Doss’s were making a huge difference in the lives of twelve children. Yes, twelve, because they get three more. Donny is nine, and most of his siblings are around six or seven or a baby. No one is the size of Donny.

Gregory (a Cheyenne-Blackfoot baby), Dorothy (a Welsh-English-French girl), and Richard (who is a Chippewa-Canadian and Blackfoot-Scottish-American nine-year-old boy) round out (is that possible??) the family. Finally, Donny has a boy just the size of him.

He only had to wait five years. The more children the Doss’s adopt, the harder it is to remember who’s who. My favorite time period is back when they were dumping balloons down the heating vents, but I deeply enjoyed the entire book. Helen Doss is an intelligent, considerate, loving, patient woman.

I highly recommend this quick, easy read to anyone, but especially mothers with young children who want a good laugh. I don’t see The Family Nobody Wanted advertised to a certain age group, but my mom bought and read her copy when she was thirteen. I’ve since had my husband read The Family Nobody Wanted and was happy to re-read the memoir in my thirties. We both loved it and now he adds “just the size of Donny” to weird things, too!

All fourteen Doss family members.
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29 comments

  1. Sounds like a highly engaging read. The question of fairness is an interesting one – it’s astounding they managed to raise twelve kids with such limited resources!

    • When I saw the picture of the house they eventually lived in, I was surprised. It’s huge! Some of the kids had bunk beds, but there’s nothing tragic about that. In fact, many of the kids were happy to have a sibling roomie because they enjoyed each other.

  2. This sounds like a really remarkable book, and I’d never even heard of it! I really enjoyed your review, and I might well pick it up, although I think I might find the way the children’s dialogue is written more grating than charming.

    • I can see how just looking at the children’s dialogue makes it look too cutesy, like maybe the author is trying to hard. However, when you read about the kids, the way they speak fits with their personalities. It’s an easy book, which means you can read it in a sitting or two. I have a hard time putting it down!

      • If the dialogue fits then that’s different – it looks like this is out of print over here, so I might request it through the library, as it does sound like it’s up my street.

  3. My darling daughter, trust me when I give you a book that there may be a reason I wanted you to read it or that itโ€™s simply a good read! Now go back and read all those books I gave you. Seriously. Love your sweet Ma. ๐Ÿ˜˜ ๐Ÿ˜˜

  4. I’ve never heard of this book but it sounds delightful. I cannot imagine raising twelve children, let alone so many little ones at once, but it does sound like these were pretty special parents.

    • I kind of wonder if you get a certain number of kids, do they all just watch each other? Like, maybe two children is hard because you have to watch them both, but twelve is easier because they’re group up, lol.

      • There’s probably some truth to that. Though usually the case would be that by the time you have your twelfth, your oldest is pretty grown up and it doesn’t sound like the Doss family had that. But kids do entertain each other (sometimes).

  5. I don’t have this book about Helen and Donny and all their kids. I have never heard of this book, but of course you make me want to look for it. I think I would enjoy reading this, but especially appreciate the history you have with this book. My aunt was the person who would give me books and say “read this.”

    Also, I was thinking about Josephine Baker, who adopted her Rainbow Tribe.

    • Good gravy, I looked up Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe. The article I read scared me a bit. She called it an “experiment,” which sets off alarm bells because that means she’s using children. The article said, “Baker trained the children to be racial exemplars, to represent specific continents, religions and histories.” That’s rough because children are individuals, not representations of any one race, religion, or culture. At one point in the article, Baker is quoted saying she wants “a pure-bred Japanese,” which sounds like animal husbandry. I think Baker’s autobiography would be an interesting book to read, though her attitude scares me. I guess the children resented her for treating them like “pet monkeys.” Here is the article I read: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10765330/Would-the-perfect-family-contain-a-child-from-every-race.html

      How did you first hear about the Rainbow Tribe?

      • I also want to read more some nonfiction about Baker. Last year I read a book called, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance by Sherry Jones, which is biographical fiction. It shed some light on the generic things I thought I knew about Baker. She had a difficult childhood, and she couldn’t have kids of her own. As a victim of racial discrimination, I saw her decision as her own way of telling the world and the kids you could be who you are and love yourself since the world would like to tell you otherwise (at the time).

        As with everyone, I think when your childhood is tainted by mistreatment and abuse, it’s difficult to find ways to express yourself and love others. I felt that is what she ultimately wanted to do. But like I said, I’ve not read too much about her until last year

        • Ooooooh, your idea — when your childhood is tainted by mistreatment and abuse, itโ€™s difficult to find ways to express yourself and love others — gave me a chill. That’s so beautifully expressed, Shell.

          • Aww, ๐Ÿ™ˆ thanks Melanie. I know the book I read wasn’t 100% fact but her childhood was so sad and I know she wasn’t the only person to endure many of the things she did. I kept thinking how she yearned to be loved and to give love, instead what she got on many occasions was a form of admiration and infatuation from so many. Wow, sorry I’m rambling on here. Maybe I should share a review on my blog about the book I did read, I don’t know why I didn’t.

            But I’m going to look up some nonfiction books about her, maybe if we can find one at library it would be one we could read and discuss together? I

  6. What a beautiful family. My youngest, who is almost eight, asks for more siblings, but that just isn’t going to happen. She has a growing number of cousins who are like my own children, and they are the closest she will get to more siblings.

    • Jeez, mom, just one request to have a sibling just her size and you won’t consent!? Children are funny ๐Ÿ™‚ I agree that cousins are a lot of fun. I kind of like how in that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding all the characters live near each other. It’s like having multiple children, but they’re cousins.

  7. OMG just reading your review of this book gave me anxiety. That balloon moment? I would have been in tears, cursing my husband. This woman is tough as nails is what she is! Although clearly we are completely different people, her and I, because I clearly finished having children after 2. Really interesting read I bet, I can see why you enjoyed it!

    • Honestly, I thought you would enjoy it and would occasionally picture you as I read! The children are so funny in the middle of disasters that I…okay, this sounds mean…kind of laughed at Helen Doss’s expense! I mean, at least she has the life she wanted, she wrote a book to share that life with me, and now I’m laughing ๐Ÿ˜€

  8. What an interesting sounding read! I looked it up on Amazon to add to my TBR list, and Amazon said that it “inspired two films”. One of the films was a TV movie that stars Shirley Jones as Helen Doss! Wonder how much of the story they changed for the TV movie…
    This sounds like an inspiring read!

    • I had no idea there were movies about the family. I really love the book so much because it is just soooo funny. Doss captures children perfectly, giving each a unique voice. This is one of those rare cases in which I don’t agree with a lot of the author’s life choices, but I really dig her writing.

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