Alethea Williams’ engaging story, Walls for the Wind, captures New York City tenement life of the 1860’s. The harsh realities of disease, starvation and pestilence filled the streets and hovels and left many thousands of children without parents, home or health. Charles Loring Brace established the Children’s Aid Society to rescue and send children westward in the hope new and lasting homes might be found.
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.