O’Connor (Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, 1996) crafts a vibrant, wide-ranging narrative of Charles Loring Brace’s child-welfare movement, which had a profound influence on America’s treatment of disadvantaged youth.
Born in 1826 and raised in a staunchly religious New England household, Brace was seemingly made to serve his fellow human beings—specifically the homeless children of New York City. He founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, and one year later the first load of street kids hoping for job training and perhaps new families steamed toward Dowagiac, Michigan. They were never called “orphan trains” during Brace’s lifetime; he referred to his practice of sending children to the country to be indentured or (in the best cases) adopted as “placing out.” In marvelously evocative and eminently readable prose, O’Connor relates an all-American story of explosive urban growth, of families destroyed by a nascent capitalism, of the West’s myths and promises. First-hand accounts from some of the 250,000 orphans who rode the trains between 1854 and 1929 provide a window into this era, and much space is dedicated to the movement’s most stunning successes and failures—from John Brady (who became governor of Alaska) to Charley Miller (who was hanged for a double murder). O’Connor balances these stories with a well-constructed chronicle of the ups and downs of the Children’s Aid Society. He also delineates changing perceptions about disadvantaged children that eventually led much of the nation to dismiss Brace as a figurehead for outmoded philosophies. O'Connor’s meticulous research studs the narrative with many marvelous details, from a description of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Staten Island farm to the atmosphere of Brace’s Newsboy’s Lodging House.
Extremely engaging history.