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Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed Hardcover – February 8, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 children were "emigrated" out of "vice-ridden" urban areas and put up for grabs in the West, where labor was in short supply. Brace (1826-1890) educated himself for the ministry, but under the influence of Darwin and progressive European experiments like the Rauhe Haus, a children's settlement house, he set about saving lives. Rather than work with adults ("saving" prostitutes or banning rum), Brace chose to save their children. As organizer of the Children's Aid Society (CAS), he devised a series of projects to help street kids help themselves: lodging houses, industrial schools and, finally, the infamous "orphan trains." As haphazard and casual as Brace's adoption system may have been, it was the only solution to child abuse and neglect in America at the time. O'Connor intercuts his narrative with the life stories of a few orphan train successes and failures, as if to emphasize that there's no clear verdict on the CAS and what they did. While the book is organized as a biography of Brace, O'Connor digresses compellingly, drawing readers into accounts of rancher warfare, protestant philosophy and Horatio Alger's pedophilia. With a fast-forward to modern times, he reveals that there's nothing new about the crises in what we now call the foster care system. (Feb.) Forecast: From the typeface to the footnotes, this effort is too scholarly for general interest audiences, although it's bound to be required reading for anyone in the social work field.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Multitudes of street urchins constantly abused or neglected as they struggle for survival--these are images we associate today with urban centers in Third World nations. Yet in the nineteenth century, such horrors were commonplace in most large American and European cities. In mid-nineteenth-century New York, many of these children wound up in prisons or workhouses. Charles Loring Brace strove mightily to save some of these children by providing them with sustenance and then sending them westward by train to families. O'Connor is an author and former New York public school teacher. In this riveting and often heartbreaking account of Brace's successes and failures, he describes the process of adoption, the assumptions behind this massive effort, and the lessons we have learned, or should have learned. Many of the personal accounts of the children and their ultimate fates are both moving and disturbing. This is a very valuable and informative work that must compel us to ponder how we approach seemingly intractable social ills. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1St Edition edition (February 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395841739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395841730
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,169,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

STEPHEN O'CONNOR is the author of two collections of short fiction, Rescue and Here Comes Another Lesson, and of two works of nonfiction, Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, a memoir, and Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, narrative history.

His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, Poetry Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Quarterly, Partisan Review, The Massachusetts Review, Fiction International, and many other places. His essays and journalism have been published in The New York Times, DoubleTake, The Nation, Agni, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The New Labor Forum, and elsewhere.

He is a recipient of the Cornell Woolrich Fellowship in Creative Writing from Columbia University; the Visiting Fellowship for Historical Research by Artists and Writers from the American Antiquarian Society; and the DeWitt Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. He lives in New York City and teaches fiction and nonfiction writing in the MFA programs of Columbia and Sarah Lawrence.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a must-read for anyone interested in the the welfare of poor children today. Orphan Trains traces the history of foster care in this country, and in doing so shows how the U.S. has never put its money where its mouth is when it comes to poor children. The book is a good read, too, because it's full of moving, fascinating stories of the children and their adventures - like a series of Huckleberry Finn stories, only real. O'Connor's prose is clear and yet imagistic, evoking New York at the turn of the century with all its sounds and smells. On every level, this books works splendidly.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Gretchen on January 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I feel the author Stephen O'Connor was being overly critical of Charles Loring Brace the founder of the Children's Aid Society. He seems to judge Brace's work of 150 years ago according to modern standards. Seems Brace did the best he could do to help the thousands of poor children and families before any social service system was in place. Pioneers make mistakes, so others can do better on the back of his work. I completely disagree with O'Conner's statements (page 220) that "to applaud their (prostitutes) desire to profit from and, at least in some instances, enjoy sex." O'Conner is talking about child prostitutes as well. The context of prostitution he is writing about is derived from sheer desperation and can only be humiliating at best to the girl. Hardly a joy or a desire for profit when in the 1800's purity in women was highly valued.

I would have liked to read more about the children's stories and less about O'Connors opinions of a man he never met, but obviously did not agree with his values. As I finished the book, I read it feeling I had to 'hear' it thru the words of one man who decided not to like Brace perhaps because he did not like Braces Victorian Christianity. Too bad, cause I think the story merits a much deeper analogy from an open mind.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By slomamma on October 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Some people say you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, and if that is true the United States has repeatedly failed the test. When it comes to dealing with the most vulnerable people among us Ñ children whose families can not or will not take care of them Ñ over and over we turn our backs on horrible examples of abuse and neglect.
After reading Orphan Trains, which deals with the origins of the foster care system in the mid-nineteenth century, the first attempts to deal with the problems of children without families, rather than dealing with the problems (primarily crime) that such children created for society, IÕm struck by the fact that this failure is far from a new thing.
Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the ChildrenÕs Aid Society, which found homes for orphans, runaways, and children who had essentially been abandoned by their families, was both an intelligent and a well-intentioned man. Fighting the prejudice of his time, he argued that homeless children were not criminals and threats to society, but potentially upstanding citizens. All they needed was the love and attention of a family. A noble sentiment, but unfortunately Brace mixed it with another noble, but tragically wrong, sentiment. He believed that all middle class families, especially farm families, were good. So he put New York children on trains headed west to be taken in by just about any family that would have them. Many children were adopted by wonderful, caring families, but others ended up as virtual slave labor. Girls were often subject to sexual abuse.
In hindsight, it is easy for us to see the flaws in BraceÕs thinking.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Sharon Miner on February 13, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book gives info on this early foster care system. O'Connor's research is obvious, and explained clearly. The stories are remarkable, touching and often sad. This is a wonderful resource for social workers, but will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history centering on families.

My grandfather, a NY orphan, was sent by train to Colorado in 1897 when he was 7 years old; no one met him at the station and by the morning the town drunk found him and took him in. I'm writing a YA novel based on his adventures called "The Wildcat Orphan." The horse-loving but quick-tempered boy grows into a young man who becomes an avid geologist and expert on mining.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Anne P on March 17, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book is a quite interesting historical account of the orphan trains. However, O'Connor, the author, uses modern day standards to judge the people of another era. Charles Loring Brace was a man who saw a problem and tried to cure it. Yes, there were racial inequities and girls were not treated the same as boys were. It was the Victorian era. Some of his ideas did not work, and in time better ways of handling children in need of homes were found. But someone had to start somewhere! Children are certainly better off in real homes than they are in orphanages or asylums. Brace's work was the beginning of the foster care system.

Also, O'Connor has a clear political agenda. For instance, on page 236, he says, "...the law's advocates -- like many on the right today, believed that poverty was a prima facie disqualification for parenthood..." Who are these evil people on the right who hate poor people? He offers no footnote to back up that sweeping accusation. Also, I got tired of the negative remarks about Brace's religion. On page 285, he comments on Brace's final book, "about humankind's long march through ignorance to the "truth" of Christ". By placing the word "Truth" in quotes (and not the entire sentence) he is mocking Brace's beliefs.

I would recommend the book. But it would have been nice if O'Connor had had a little more respect for the man he wrote about.
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