Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Linda Gordon

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-36041-9
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Microhistory at its best. Gordon (History/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison) has long been a student of working-class and poor women, with a special interest in motherhood (Pitied But Not Entitled, 1994, traces the history of single mothers and welfare). Here she takes on some new challenges—narrative, the history of Spanish-speaking Americans, New Western history. Gordon began with great raw material: a gripping tale that sounds more like the plot of a TV mini-series than the subject of a university press book. In 1904, Catholic nuns in New York sent 40 Irish children on an “orphan train” to a small Arizona mining town, where they would be cared for by Catholic families—Mexican Catholic families. When the children arrived, the Anglo townsfolk were outraged by the idea that 40 white boys and girls were going to be placed with non-white families. Anglo women organized their men into a posse which kidnapped the children from the Mexican families. A trial followed, and the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court found in favor of the Anglos. Gordon, drawing on interviews, newspapers, and the court transcript, recreates the kidnapping and the ensuing courtroom drama in intoxicating detail. Along the way, Gordon cracks open a number of hot issues, from labor relations to women’s roles. At the center is her examination of the social construction of race; you won—t find a more illuminating or nuanced discussion of the invention of whiteness than Gordon’s. “The train ride,” Gordon reminds us, “had transformed [the foundlings] from Irish to white.” In early twentieth-century New York, Irish kids were no more “white” than Jewish or Italian children. But in Arizona, where the “other” was dark-skinned and spoke a language even more foreign to “white” ears than an Irish brogue, the children were suddenly as white as George Washington. Gordon has written the rare history book that readers won—t be able to put down. (35 halftones, 2 maps, 1 table)