Friday, July 31, 2009

Bookends Friday: Orphan Trains

On the morning of October 1, 1854, forty-five children sat on the front benches of a meetinghouse in Dowagiac, Michigan. Most were between ten and twelve years old. . . For the last couple of weeks notices had been running in the newspapers, and bills had been posted at the general store, the tavern, and the railroad station asking families to take in homeless boys and girls from New York City. The children had arrived on the train from Detroit at three that morning and had huddled together on the station platform until sunup . . . .
If you have the slightest genealogical interest in orphans, half-orphans, or abandoned children, Stephen O'Connor's 2001 book Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed will keep your attention all the way through. The author manages to tell three intertwined tales: the life of Brace, a classic New England reformer; the stories (those that are recoverable) of many of the children themselves; and the way nineteenth-century Americans, including Brace's Children's Aid Society, thought about the problem of children without competent or affluent parents.

Because the big surprise here is that Brace's basic ideas have not been jettisoned at all. They are still at the heart of our foster care "system"; only the trains are missing. The past is not dead; it isn't even past.

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