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Walls for the Wind Paperback – August 3, 2016
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2015 LARAMIE AWARDS 1st Place Prairie Fiction winner
From the Author
THE ORPHAN TRAIN PHENOMENON AND WALLS FOR THE WIND, by Alethea Williams
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Several children’s welfare movements began to deal with the thousands of homeless children of indentured servants and impoverished immigrants. One of these programs was a welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from the highly populated Eastern cities and placed them in foster homes located throughout the rural Midwest. These trains operated from 1854 to 1929 and relocated some 200,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless children. Their plight is the core of Alethea Williams’ historical fiction titled "Walls for the Wind."
Kit Calhoun’s character, the protagonist, was created to portray one youngster among the estimated 34,000 children roaming the streets of New York City, enmeshed in despair and hopelessness in the 1850s. Kit eventually finds herself in the care of the influential Reverend Howe, founder, and director of the Immigrant Children's Asylum. Kit is fortunate as she is given education and training as a young ward. As time passes and Kit grows older, she takes a job as assistant to the elderly director, Rev. Howe. Having felt the genuine love and care from a person to redirect the course of her own life, Kit passionately goes about the task of rescuing other homeless children.
Kit finds the work empowering and important, but she also faces an inner struggle at times that the author, Alethea Williams, expertly develops. The author is adept at weaving historical fact, vivid descriptions of the times, and engrossing plot-line through a young woman's perspective in this male dominated time. Kit goes about her work with diligence and as much faith as she can muster that she is making a difference in her daunting work of trying to feed and clothe the endless barrage of homeless and impoverished children. She is considered by her peers to be “joyless and severe” even though she yearns for a husband and a family of her own, beyond the limited and depressing situation she grew up in and the destitute life of her own mother, who was driven to prostitution in order to feed Kit and herself.
The pace of the novel picks up when Kit heads west on an orphan train to help place children with farm families on the frontier. Obviously, Kit would like to see the children adopted by loving parents, but what she quickly discovers is the families the children are being placed with, treat the children as little more than indentured servants who are forced to pay for their room and board as farmhands and laborers with little nurturing or no time for education.
Not being able to accept this fate for four particular children, Kit decides to adopt them herself when the Orphan Train reaches its destination in Colorado.
Though her actions are noble, supporting her newly adopted children is a struggle. They live out of a tent and Kit must take in laundry to earn money. But it’s never enough. To make matters worse, she is assaulted by a gambler. At this point, Kit has total disdain for men as she has come to the belief that all men are users and want women for only one thing. When she finally encounters a man that breaks this mold she openly struggles with trust issues.
A vivid and multi-layered take on a the turbulent post- Civil War times that examines with wide open eyes the Wild West environs and the human cost of the “Manifest Destiny” that lead to Transcontinental railway and the U.S. expansion west. Author Alethea Williams characters portray the difficulties and challenges of these hard scrabble times with a refreshing perspective from a young woman who is trying to make her way. The closing chapters of this powerful tale play out this struggle in breathtaking fashion. An enlightening and informative read of the United States not so distant past.
The author plunges the reader into the fray immediately in the person of Katherine “Kit” Calhoun. Fostered by Reverend Howe, Kit sets aside her dreams to learn the ways of Orphan Trains. She suffers a difficult education of an imperfect and last-resort means to lessen the burdens on the overcrowded and underfunded institutions. Kit struggles with what she sees as a slave trade method of hawking the children at train stops and town halls. Forever wrestling with mountains of paperwork, tired and dispirited youngsters, she can barely keep up with the never-ending need. Yet, she does.
Williams shows her deep understanding and portrayal of the westward movement of railroad construction. Lonely and hardworking builders seek relief in the saloons and bordellos that trail them. Kit ventures into this society to make a home for the unplaced four children whom she is determined to mother. Hands raw and blistered from taking in laundry, battles of wills with the teenagers in her charge, trying to stretch her small inheritance from Rev. Howe, Kit’s fears often verge on panic.
The villainous Gambler and the hero Patrick Kelley have strong roles to play in the drama as it unfolds. The author has been accused of “head hopping,” a term abhorrent to writers struggling with Point of View. I did not find an issue here as Williams clearly delineated who was speaking or thinking and when. There’s a richness in Williams’ writing that explores a painful and historical story. As a career social worker very familiar with the Orphan Train movement and foster placement, I appreciated this difficult tale so well and sympathetically told.
Alethea Williams did a great job of describing the harsh conditions that immigrants and the orphans of immigrants endured in the slums of New York City during this era. No wonder so many of them decided to head west! I also came to understand why Orphan Trains were seen as a good solution for the problem of so many abandoned and orphaned children. Her portrayal of the frontier towns that sprang up along the railroads gave me a new appreciation for the difficulties those settlers and workers had to endure. Women were especially vulnerable in those lawless times. Williams painted a vivid picture of her protagonist Katharine (“Kit”), making me hope she’d be able to overcome all the challenges she faced. Sometimes Kit seemed too good to be true, but I could see how her background would lead her to adhere to her code of behavior so strictly. Her inflexibility was both her strength and her weakness.
Although I felt that the writing would benefit from some tightening and the pacing seemed to be a little off at times, the story kept me interested. The book takes place during the 1860s, and anyone who is interested in learning more about the day-to-day reality of life during that period would definitely enjoy this story. I did.
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This was my first time reading Alethea Williams and what a treat!Read more