A Novel About Autism in Nineteenth Century Nova Scotia


Poor Farm Cover
Working Cover for Upcoming Novel Poor Farm

Welcome to the Poor Farm blog! I will post updates about the novel here, along with longer background pieces. As outlined on the Welcome page: this novel is about an autistic character in nineteenth century Nova Scotia. Why? There are a lot of books on autism but few that imagine what it was like for people on the spectrum in previous times. That’s one reason. The bigger reason is I wrote it for my autistic son.

The story opens in the present day with a dad struggling to understand his young autistic son while they walk through a local nature trail. They stumble upon a grove of white wooden crosses, anonymous markers to people who died on a forgotten Poor Farm. The Poor Farm was real and established in 1887 for the “Harmlessly Insane.” What did that mean? Was that the word for autism at the time? The story tries to answer this question but also asks how do we understand autism today. It’s a question I still struggle with.

Who am I? My name is Ronan O’Driscoll and I am a writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My background is all over: Ireland, England, America and Canada. For more details, you can check out my personal website https://ronanodriscoll.com. In terms of writing, Poor Farm is my second novel. My other novel is also historical fiction about a famous Irish-American chief of police who loved Irish music so much he “saved” it. Find out more at https://chiefoneill.com.

I like to finish my Chief O’Neill blog posts with a snippet of one of the tunes he collected. There is plenty of music in Poor Farm also: Stewart, the main character, uses it to communicate. I will try and include snippets from the time and place in later blog posts. However, I thought I would begin with something more recent. I just heard an excellent interview of my favourite author: David Mitchell on the venerable BBC Radio 4 show “Desert Island Discs”. The interview is here. Read everything by David Mitchell if you haven’t already, but if your interest is autism, I recommend his translations of the autistic poet and writer Naoki Higashida. Naoki’s work helped me understand my own son and was part of the inspiration for Poor Farm.

See below for the music David Mitchell picked for being stranded on a desert island. The artists and titles are listed on the BBC site and I straightaway made a Spotify playlist. I was surprised there wasn’t one already. We David Mitchell fans are pretty dedicated (just check out how many Utopia Avenue playlists there are).