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It’s April, 1912, and with her mother’s death, fifteen year old Liliana Alvaro must face the difficult fact that
she and her nine year old brother, Jossue, and her six year old sister,
Maravilla, are now orphans. Swept up by a tide of circumstances she
cannot control, Liliana struggles to keep her family together. When the
three agree to board a train for an unknown destination to be “placed
out west” Liliana knows that even with her fierce determination,
Jossue’s shrewd schemes, and Maravilla’s childlike faith there is little
hope that they will stay together.
Yet Maravilla has a secret or two to tell and it seems as if Mamá and Papá
have left behind more than just loving memories. Ideas of treasure and
wealth and long-lost family fire Liliana’s hopes and dreams. With
single minded focus, Liliana forges ahead becoming a young woman willing
to sacrifice everything to recover what her family has lost.
When the chance to claim her birthright is within her grasp at last, Liliana is forced to face the
hardest of all questions: what was the true treasure that her parents
wanted her to have?
What could have brought about the shocking yet true concept of gathering up poor, desperate, helpless children, placing them
on trains and shipping them out west to be claimed by perfect
strangers? It’s hard for those of us warm and well fed sitting in our
comfortable homes to understand the rationale or the need and yet for
more than seventy-five years it was a viable solution for over 200,000
infants, children, and teenagers.[i]
Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the United States struggled from
extraordinary pressures. There was the astronomical healing process as
the nation worked to recover from the Civil War where over 700,000 lives
were lost (a number still not matched today). Immigration had exploded
as an estimated 30 million Europeans would travel to the United States
by 1914. And an incredible industrial revolution was occurring that
included electricity, telephone, transcontinental train travel,
automobile travel, and flight. The delicate balance of life and death,
prosperity and poverty, and hope and despair leaned toward the darkness
for many during this time and prompted Frederlick Law Olmstead to
observe, “There’s a great work wants doing in this our generation.”[ii]
In 1849, New York’s first police chief reported that 3,000 children – or close to one
percent of the city’s total population – lived on the streets and had
no place to sleep but in alleys and abandoned buildings or under
stairways.[iii] Charles Loring Brace was an ideological
minister who walked through the teeming city streets of New York and saw
a need he believed he could address. During his time and even today he
had his detractors as well as his supporters. Critics pointed out his
ideological belief that the west was an endless expanse of wealth and
plenty where nightly dinner tables groaned under unimaginable bounty.
Spiritual leaders were horrified by his lack of concern when matching
diverse religious backgrounds between children in need and families in
want. This prompted Catholic Charities to set up their own orphan train
system which included scrupulous religious vetting for potential
adoptive families. Regardless of these criticisms, my predominant
opinion as I read Charles Loring Brace’s story was, “At least he did
In March, 1853, he established an organization known as the Children’s Aid Society which still exists
today (http://www.childrensaidsociety.org/). Initially, Brace wanted to
offer education, religious guidance, jobs and good homes to children in
need. He established the nation’s first runaway shelter and the
Newsboy’s Lodging House where vagrant boys could receive an inexpensive
room, board and a basic education. Brace, strapped for cash, soon was
unable to meet the overwhelming demands of children needing assistance.
His concept, to ship children west to the countryside and allow
families to choose a child to bring home and care for, came out of his
desire to address this dilemma. The first $50 donation towards this
effort was given by Mrs. John Astor in 1853.[iv]
The term “orphan train” is a misnomer. While children living in the nineteenth
century did have a twenty to thirty percent chance of becoming an orphan
before the age of fifteen, the majority of children on both the
“orphan” trains and in orphanages had at least one living parent.
Orphanages were often used as places to house children when a family was
in crisis. It was not unusual for children to spend a number of years
as a resident, to be visited occasionally by family, and eventually be
reclaimed when family circumstances improved.
Brace’s premise for Placing Out children (as it was accurately called) was simple: cities were overflowing with destitute and orphaned
children and rural America, the cradle of wholesome values, was always
in need of laborers. As the railroad expanded its tracks – going from
9,021 miles of track in 1850 to 192,556 miles by 1900[v], so too did Brace’s opportunities eventually
allowing the Children’s Aid Society to place out children to all of the
contiuguous forty-eight states except Arizona.[vi]
But “anyone who accepted adoption as the ideal goal of the orphan trains would have
been deeply disappointed by their actual results, and anyone who
believed that the typical orphan train rider ended up adopted would have
felt equally betrayed, because the truth is that only a minority of
orphan train riders ever experienced anything like what we would call
adoption today.”[vii] An excellent book I came across, We Are
A Part Of History: The Story Of The Orphan Trains, provided an
excellent narrative resource of actual orphan train riders. Many
stories were heartbreaking, only some were uplifting. I have my
characters, Liliana and Jossue, grumble over the truth of their
circumstances. Yet, I have Miss Tice ask the important question that I
myself wondered, “Isn’t the hope of a new life better than no
hope at all?”
I was intrigued with the concept of the orphan trains from the moment I learned of them. At
the time, I was teaching a fifth grade reading class in New Jersey -
with two students named Liliana and Jossue (pronounced Hoe-Sway, just
for the record!). The story has been growing in my head for over six
years (while I wrote seven other stories). I bought books on the
subject and began to think about things like New York City tenements,
child labor, Texas, the Spanish language, influenza, letters, treasure
… You get the picture.
I like to write stories about real life. And for me, real life always includes
spiritual hope and godly truths. While I tried to present as accurately
as possible the bleak existence and constant hardships faced by my
three fictional Alvaro children, I was just as determined to show the
transforming power of God in anyone’s life.
I believe in this truth whole-heartedly.
I have seen it.
I have lived it myself.
It is my earnest hope that you, too, will understand this truth as well!
[i] The Orphan Trains, By Marilyn Irvin Holt, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1992, ISBN 0-8032-2360-9
[ii] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
[iii] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
[v] The Orphan Trains, By Marilyn Irvin Holt, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1992, ISBN 0-8032-2360-9
[vi] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
[vii] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
Bringing Resources to The Christian Woman Online