Chapter One — The Boy Who Belonged to St.
In the hospital of the orphanage-the boys’ division at St.
Cloud’s, Maine-two nurses were in charge of naming the new
babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the
obligatory circumcision. In those days (in 192_), all boys born at
St. Cloud’s were circumcised because the orphanage physician
had experienced some difficulty in treating uncircumcised soldiers,
for this and for that, in World War I. The doctor, who was also the
doctor of the boys’ division, was not a religious man;
circumcision was not a rite with him-it was a strictly medical act,
performed for hygienic reasons. His name was Wilbur Larch, which,
except for the scent of ether that always accompanied him, reminded
one of the nurses of the tough, durable wood of the coniferous tree
of that name. She hated, however, the ridiculous name of Wilbur,
and took offense at the silliness of combining a word like Wilbur
with something as substantial as a tree.
The other nurse imagined herself to be in love with Dr. Larch, and
when it was her turn to name a baby, she frequently named him John
Larch, or John Wilbur (her father’s name was John), or Wilbur
Walsh (her mother’s maiden name had been Walsh). Despite her
love for Dr. Larch, she could not imagine Larch as anything but a
last name-and when she thought of him, she did not think of trees
at all. For its flexibility as a first or as a last name, she loved
the name of Wilbur-and when she tired of her use of John, or was
criticized by her colleague for overusing it, she could rarely come
up with anything more original than a Robert Larch or a Jack Wilbur
(she seemed not to know that Jack was often a nickname for
If he had been named by this dull, love-struck nurse, he probably
would have been a Larch or a Wilbur of one kind or another; and a
John, a Jack, or a Robert-to make matters even duller. Because it
was the other nurse’s turn, he was named Homer Wells.
The other nurse’s father was in the business of drilling
wells, which was hard, harrowing, honest, precise work-to her
thinking her father was composed of these qualities, which lent the
word “wells” a certain deep, down-to-earth aura.
“Homer” had been the name of one of her family’s
This other nurse-Nurse Angela, to almost everyone-rarely repeated
the names of her babies, whereas poor Nurse Edna had named three
John Wilbur Juniors, and two John Larch the Thirds. Nurse Angela
knew an inexhaustible number of no-nonsense nouns, which she
diligently employed as last names-Maple, Fields, Stone, Hill, Knot,
Day, Waters (to list a few)-and a slightly less impressive list of
first names borrowed from a family history of many dead but
cherished pets (Felix, Fuzzy, Smoky, Sam, Snowy, Joe, Curly, Ed and
For most of the orphans, of course, these nurse-given names were
temporary. The boys’ division had a better record than the
girls’ division at placing the orphans in homes when they
were babies; too young ever to know the names their good nurses had
given them; most of the orphans wouldn’t even remember Nurse
Angela or Nurse Edna, the first women in the world to fuss over
them. Dr. Larch made it a firm policy that the orphans’
adoptive families not be informed of the names the nurses
gave with such zeal. The feeling at St. Cloud’s was that a
child, upon leaving the orphanage, should know the thrill of a
fresh start-but (especially the boys who were difficult to place
and lived at St. Cloud’s the longest) it was hard for Nurse
Angela and Nurse Edna, and even for Dr. Larch, not to think of
their John Wilburs and John Larches (their Felix Hills, Curly
Maples, Joe Knots, Smoky Waterses) as possessing their nurse-given
The reason Homer Wells kept his name was that he came back to St.
Cloud’s so many times, after so many failed foster home, that
the orphanage was forced to acknowledge Homer’s intention to
make St. Cloud’s his home. It was not easy for anyone to
accept, but Nurse Angela and Nurse Edna-and, finally, Dr. Wilbur
Larch-were forced to admit that Homer Wells belonged to St.
Cloud’s. The determined boy was not put up for adoption
Nurse Angela, with her love of cats and orphans, once remarked of
Homer Wells that the boy must adore the name she gave him
because he fought so hard not to lose it.
Excerpted from THE CIDER HOUSE RULES © Copyright 2002 by
John Irving. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a
division of Random House. All rights reserved.
The Cider House Rules