Originally posted at The Public’s Health blog (Philly.Com).
Americans prefer stories about our most vulnerable youngsters to have a happy ending, like the comic book character “Little Orphan Annie,” so popular that she returned as a musical and was recently remade into the move “Annie” It allows us to indulge in the fantasy that plucky orphans and foster children benefit less from governmental investment (one that might require increasing taxes and more infrastructure) and more from wealthy larger-than-life private citizen rescuers like “Daddy Warbucks” (the comic strip) or “Will Stacks” (the 2014 movie).
Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train—the 2015 selection of the One Book, One Philadelphia citywide reading project—is fiction, but no fantasy.
Its title comes from the real-life attempts, a century and a half ago, to solve the problem of “orphaned” children with a feel-good idea to populate the west. Although little remembered today, the Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace was celebrated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries for his vision for “saving” children. Brace, who hailed from a prominent Connecticut family, founded the “Children’s Aid Society” in the mid-19th century. As a result of his determination, more than 100,000 children were sent west between the 1850s and the 1920s on what became known as “orphan trains.”
Brace was especially concerned about the large numbers of impoverished children from what he called the “Dangerous Classes.” Some of these youngsters had no parents, but many of them had at least one living mother or father who was too poor or too ill to care for them. Brace wanted to improve on the options available to these “at-risk” children, then poorhouses and institutions.He argued that not only could children be exploited in such settings, they also learned criminal behavior from the adults who lived there. That perpetuated the cycle of poverty and social pathology of their parents because they did not have access to the correct moral guidance. Brace also disliked the other option, indenture in city factories or homes because he believed it kept youngsters exposed to the evils of city life. But he came upon a solution that he felt “saved” children morally and economically, while also shaping them into good American citizens and populating the western states with more help on farms and private homes—the orphan train.
Kline’s book engages with the intended and unintended consequences of Brace and the system of caring for vulnerable children today that he helped shape. It is a fascinating, made-up account of the experiences of young girls at different junctures in the 20th that is nested in very real historical events—and a contemporary context—that are accurately and poignantly described.
The book centers on the relationship between two women, Vivian and Molly. Vivian, now in her 90s, was an Irish immigrant orphan whose parents died in a fire. Kline describes the dislocation Vivian felt leaving her native Ireland for a New York City tenement, feelings that are quickly compounded by her confusion and terror as she is quickly placed on an orphan train headed west in the 1920s.
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About the Author: Cynthia Connolly, PhD, RN, PNP, FAAN is an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a leading scholar on the history of pediatric nursing and healthcare. She holds a secondary appointment in the History and Sociology of Science departmentand is a Fellow at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program and The Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Women. She is Co-Faculty Director for the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research.