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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Despite Lackluster Writing, Orphan Trains Is Powerful, Moving

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I talk a lot about my oldest daughter on this blog, but I haven't mentioned my 10-year-old son very much. It's not becaause he isn't a reader. He is. He's just not as funny and obsessive about books as his sister (and mother). Perhaps it's a guy thing, but my son rarely reads fiction (with the exception of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books - he's read each volume at least 5 times); even his fiction is barely that. Lucky for him, our county library has a large collection of children's non-fiction, which is conveniently located in the kid's section. I've been taking him there since he was little - together, we've searched for books on every subject under the sun. When we moved last summer, we decided to try feeding his curiosity at the city library closest to our new home. Both of us left disappointed because the city library shelves all its children's non-fiction with its adult non-fiction, making it very difficult for us to find appropriate books on the subjects in which he was interested. We happily drove the extra miles to take advantage of the county library's superior organization.

I know you're starting to wonder what this diatribe has to do with anything. Not a lot, really, except that it explains what I was doing in the children's non-fiction section of the library. Since it's Spring Break, I took the kids to the library (twice, because my daughter read half of her 20 books in 2 days), where my son and I were searching for books about guns (boys, I swear). As we looked, my eye gravited toward the book pictured above - We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren. Something about the simple, straightforward title captured my attention. Once I got the book home and started reading, I realized I knew nothing about the orphan trains. I had the vague notion they had something to do with the Holocaust, which turned out to be completely false. In fact, they were an American solution to the problem of finding homes for needy children during difficult economic times. The book uses firsthand accounts to describe this era and the tentative, sometimes troubling beginnings of adoption/foster care in The United States. Through the voices of the children who rode them, we can begin to envision the adventure, terror and excitement that came hand-in-hand with a ride on the orphan trains.

Between 1854 and 1929, administrators at The Children's Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital (among other institutions) placed an estimated 200,000 children on trains bound for the west. The idea was to relieve overcrowded East Coast orphanages by giving abandoned, homeless and orphaned children the chance to grow up in a stable, loving family. Thus, kids were packed onto trains, unloaded at various stops and exhibited to potential adoptive families. In the book, adult riders remember the humiliation of being displayed before the public like farm animals. Adults who were looking more for laborers than anything else examined their muscles, teeth, skin, etc., not unlike white farmers once did when buying slaves. Many of the children did find loving homes, although stories of abuse, neglect and abject cruelty were not uncommon. The book lauds the efforts of early child advocates, especially those who acted as "agents" on behalf of the children. Whatever your opinion of the practice, it makes for fascinating reading.

It's the individual experiences, recounted by the children who lived them, that really makes this book impactful. Warren, who has written a handful of books about kids in history, does her subject few favors with her dull, unspectacular prose; thankfully, the material can stand on its own. The voices of train riders (all of whom are now elderly or deceased) speak loudly through this book with stories of pain, suffering, happiness and longing. These are the stories of adult adoptees who remember the fear and thrill of boarding a train for parts unknown; being exhibited, then chosen by people of all stripes; and later, the frustration of searching for their birthparents/siblings with the little information available to them. Unique and moving, the stories will touch your heart and open your eyes to a relatively unknown phenomenon in U.S. history. Plenty can be learned from the riders' experiences about what it means to be a child in need; what foster care/adoption can do for such children; and what really constitutes a family. Despite the lackluster writing, this is a powerfully moving tribute to the brave children whose lives changed forever when their paths led them to board an orphan train.

To learn more, visit the National Orphan Train Complex, Inc.

Grade: B+


  1. Great review ... I'd heard of the orphan trains, but very vaguely. This certainly does sound like a powerfully moving book. I'll have to look for it.

  2. I'm going to add this book to my to-read list. It sounds really interesting.

  3. Great review. I checked my library and they don't have it so I suggested they get it.

  4. Ooh, I remember reading the first of The Orphan Train series (Joan Lowery Nixon, maybe?) in fifth grade, we actually read it in school. I was fascinated by the idea, and I might just have to check this out. Thanks for the great review!

  5. I'd love to know what everyone thinks of the book. LMK after you read it.

    Stephanie - I looked it up on Amazon, and there is an orphan train series by Joan Lowery Nixon - I'll have to check them out. There are a couple other Orphan Train series. Interesting!


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