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 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, et.al., 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!