Monday, February 4, 2008

Professional Book Reviews

Midwest Book Review

Expertly written by Wisconsin author Robert Noonan (who moved from Chicago, Illinois to Hatfield, Wisconsin to write his books), the 'Orphan Train Trilogy' is a set of three novels that, taken together or read separately, draw upon the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century phenomena of orphaned boys and girls from the eastern seaboard who were placed upon trains traveling west for exploitive foster home placements, menial factory jobs, and agricultural laborers. 

Wildflowers  is the story of 11-year old Hillary Cook and her widowed mother. The girl must work twelve hours a day, six days a week at the Alton Textile Mill operating dangerous machinery along with the other young girls, as well as suffer dark abuses at the hands mill owner Frank Dragus. 


Bridie's Daughter follows the lives of four teen-aged children, including Catherine who ends up with Bridie McDonald in Newberry, Illinois. While some welcome the children, others hold them in dark suspicion thinking that all orphans brought in from New York City are cast-off bastards and should be treated with contempt.


Secrets is the story of Hillary and her new parents who, after fleeing from their home following a bloody crime, find a new life in Galena, Illinois.


The three titles comprising this superbly written trilogy showcase an obscure historical event in American history that began in 1854 and continued until 1929. The intent was to improve the lives of children in otherwise desperate circumstances in the cities of the east. The results were often more harrowing that anything the children had experienced prior to boarding those orphan trains headed west.


Informed and informative, Robert Noonan is a master storyteller whose novels are as entertaining as they are thoughtful and thought provoking.


Independent Professional Book Reviewers

Bridie’s Daughter, Secrets
A Trilogy
Robert Noonan


A bit of history had escaped me until I read a new trilogy by Robert Noonan—

Wildflowers, Bridie’s Daughter, and Secrets.  Sometimes historians gloss over a topic so quickly it does not register for remembrance; sometimes it is excluded because it is not something anybody wants to remember.  Such were some of the tales about the lives of children and especially those from the “Orphan Trains” which moved across the country from 1854 to 1930. Reverend Charles Loring Brace was shocked in 1850 when he learned of and saw 10,000 homeless children prowling the streets of New York City. He founded a Society, which sent many of these desperate children west to begin new lives.

Noonan begins on Friday, September 16, 1898 in a little mill town, as Hillary Cook, whose story will flow through all three books, walks to work at Alton Mill.  She is eleven years old. Her mother is widowed and both must work to have food and shelter. One friendly face at the Mill, Kate Moran, best friend of her mother, smiles as Hillary hurries to her workstation.  Work starts at six a.m.


Because the children worked long hours and had school on Sunday afternoons, the time for play and just being children was very short and much valued.  Hillary and her girlfriends would roam the countryside, searching for flowers, seeking places to play pretend…and that is how they came to call themselves Wildflowers.  Often, they would run and wave and throw kisses at the children going by on the orphan train.  They prayed they would never have to be loaded and shipped away like they had seen happen to one of the little girls at the Mill.


But just as in the fairy tales of our youth, here, too, lived a wolf, who watched all of the flowers, the children, he saw every day.  He was the owner of Alton Mill.  Whenever he chose, he plucked a child from behind the large machines and had them sent to his office.  They were there for whatever he pleased, and he took the most precious thing they owned.  And when Hillary’s mother became gravely ill, he bargained for what he wanted from Hillary.


Bridie’s Daughter picks up months later as we meet a group of children who are loaded on an orphan train to begin their search for parents.  The children ranged from small children to teenagers and as they traveled they became friends with the others.  Two of the older children, Catherine and Brian, became interested in each other.  Bridie, a maiden lady who had never married as well as her best friends, Tom and Margaret, quickly saw these two children and, by luck they were each chosen to be adopted.  Catherine became Bridie’s daughter and the couple adopted Brian.  It seemed that the best possible parents had selected the two orphans and, as they grew to care for their new parents, they also grew to care more for each other.  

One other girlfriend, Monica, from the train was also selected by a couple who owned a farm, so they were able to retain a relationship with her.  As they learned more about the community to which they had moved, they also found that a young girl had earlier been brought in on an orphan train.  A small group, but at least they had friends, because their new neighbors were not so welcoming to the children.  And Monica, unfortunately, found that some parents might have ulterior motives. She was forced to run away. 

The lives of the children are followed; the tales similar to those we will remember from Little House on the Prairie.  But these children, who had no parents, were often subjected to ridicule, abuse, and continued hardship.  Movement between a normal daily life, to the occasions of physical or mental abuse is jarring and dramatic…and memorable.

Secrets concludes this sometimes delightful and sometimes traumatic trilogy as we find that most of the characters, Bridie, Hillary, Brian, Kate, Monica,,  have secrets--murder, physical abuse and its shame, prostitution, in their lives that place them in danger, turmoil, and constant fear.  Some secrets are revealed; others better left untold.


Robert Noonan, as a first-time author, has presented us with a gift…three extremely well written novels highlighting a desperate time for children of our past.  We may not enjoy reading about some of the challenges they faced but it is important that we learn of them. We should also be reminded that there are always good people who move in to assist and love those in need.  Watch for this trilogy in the future.  These books will become memorable additions to your historical fiction bookshelf!





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Inside Flap


Wildflowers, The First Story in the Orphan Train Trilogy.


When Hillary's widowed mother, Laura, begins a relationship with Biff Arley, a stranger who frequently comes to town, Hillary is concerned that her father is being forgotten. Laura, while still in love with her deceased husband, fights guilt when she finds herself falling in love with Biff. When equally committed to their love, Biff returns for Laura and Hillary, hoping they'll start a new life with him in Galena, Illinois. He is devastated by what he learns on his return.


When he believes the time is right, mill owner, Frank Dragus, approaches Hillary with an offer she cannot refuse. When Kate Moran, Frank's secretary and Laura's best friend, learns of this, she confronts Frank and makes him pay dearly.




Back Cover - Wildflowers

Wildflowers is a riveting tale that deftly portrays everyday life in a small American milltown and the abuse of child laborers at the end of the nineteenth century.


Eleven-year-old Hillary Cook and her widowed mother, Laura, must both work to survive. Hillary works twelve hours a day, six days a week at the Alton Textile Mill. On Sunday afternoons, she and her two friends pick flowers, dream and play pretend in the nearby countryside. The girls pledge to be friends for eternity and call themselves "wildflowers."


In this difficultworld, innocent children are forced to operate dangerous machinery at the mill and even darker abuses are committed against them. Mill owner Frank Dragus has young girls sent to his office for whatever he pleases--and he is interested in Hillary. When tragedy befalls Hillary and her mother, Hillary is forced into a situation that may have disastrous consequences.


From busy factory floors and bustling portside pubs to tragedy, murder and intrigue, Wildflowers integrates the nostalgia of historical fiction with the wit of modern-day drama.





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Bridie's Daughter


Inside Flap


Bridie and Margaret stepped forward through the crowd, inching closer to the orphans and the girl named Catherine.


"My dear Bridie, she is precious. She has the same strawberry blond hair as you, the same complexion, and her face is much like yours. Looking at her is like looking at you twenty years ago. Is there something you haven't told me about your past?"


"I hear chimes," Bridie said, nervously. "She's the one. The girl I've been looking for."


"If you hear chimes, why are you waiting?" Margaret asked. "Oh! Oh! Too late, the Porters are back. They seem to like her."


"Too late heck," Bridie snapped. She walked directly to Catherine and interrupted their conversation. "Catherine Hayes. That's a fine Irish name. Were both your parents Irish?"


"Excuse me, Bridie," Martha Porter said, indignantly. "We were talking to this young lady and we are quite interested in her."


"I can appreciate that," Bridie responded. "But I don't want to talk. I would like to take her home with me."




Back Cover - Bridie's Daughter

From 1854 to 1929, more than 200,000 homeless children left New York City on orphan trains to find new lives across the country. Some found loving homes; others experienced physical and mental abuse. Bridie's Daughter brings that world to life in this second novel in Robert Noonan's Orphan Train Trilogy.

Bridie's Daughter is an eye-opening tale that follows four teen-aged children who are filled with hope, concern and uncertainty,as they ride the rails to an unknown future. Once the train stops, however, it's a roll of the dice where they'll each end up.

Bridie McDonald, a wealthy spinster, finds in Catherine the daughter she has always wanted. Catherine learns to love Bridie and her new elegant home, but is concerned about Bridie's relationship with Jack, her mentally challenged handyman.

Though most of the citizens of Newberry, Illinois, befriend these children, some are not so welcoming, believing all the orphans from New York City are bastards and should be treated as such.


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Inside Flap


Adam looked at Hillary. "Why do you call your parents, John and Kate, instead of mother and father?"


Hillary smiled, "Because they aren't my parents. They adopted me."


Adam stopped abruptly and slowly lowered the glasses back to the table. "You're adopted?" he repeated, in disbelief. He looked to Kate and John, searching for affirmation.


"That's right," Kate assured him. "Her parents were our best friends, so when her parents died, we adopted her."


"Me, too," Pina added. "I was adopted."


"Bridie adopted me," Catherine chimed in.


Adam leaned against the table, as if his legs were too weak to hold him. He spoke as though the words came hard. "You three, beautiful girls...were orphans?"


With raised eyebrows, Ruth glanced at Tom, surprised by such a bold statement from Adam.


Pina raised a hand to fluff her hair, "He called us beautiful."



Secrets Back Cover!

The third and final story from Robert Noonan's Orphan Train Trilogy, Secrets, explores the fate of orphan children who arrived on an orphan train during the late 1800s to find a new life in the Midwest. Who adopts them is the key to their happiness...or sorrow.

Despite harboring secrets from a past filled with physical abuse, shame, murder and prostitution, the children and their new parents begin a new and exciting life. But overcoming their haunting memories won't be easy.

After fleeing from their home following a horrible crime, Hillary and her new parents, John and Kate Hanley, have found a new life in Galena, Illinois. Hillary longs to visit her former hometown and reunite with her friends in the club called the Wildflowers. But going back could mean the ruin of her new family.

Filled with vivid historical detail and heartfelt emotion, Noonan delivers a compelling look at a little-known event in American history.


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