Monday, April 18, 2011

Mothers and Daughters

The orphan trains (1854-1929) organized by the New York Children’s Aid Society represent a fascinating bit of social engineering.  It is estimated that close to 250,000 children from the East Coast made their way to new homes in the West and Midwest on these trains.  As the trains moved westward, orphans and homeless, or otherwise neglected, children were displayed at local train stations where, one-by-one, they were chosen by families desiring a child.  Oversight and record keeping concerning these “adoptions” was often purposely sloppy in order to ensure that the relocated children would not be able to return to their former home cities. 

Rae Meadows centers Mothers and Daughters around one such train and the little girl whose mother placed her on it out of desperation.  Eleven-year-old Violet would ride her orphan train all the way from New York City to Minnesota, enduring stops along the way where the babies and younger children were snatched up eagerly by families wanting a child.  The older, less desirable, children like her often rode the train to the end of the line where they were offered work rather than a new family.  This would be Violet’s fate.

Mothers and Daughters is the story of three generations of women, a short line beginning with Violet and ending with her granddaughter, Samantha.  In the present, Sam’s 72-year-old mother, Iris, is dying and has asked Sam to be with her until it happens.  Sam is pregnant with a daughter of her own, but Iris will not live long enough to meet her.  Back home after her mother’s death, Sam is surprised to receive a box of her mother’s things that appears to have been unopened for decades.  Among the papers in the box is a little bible dated 1910 – and inscribed by the New York Children’s Aid Society.  Feeling certain that the bible once belonged to her grandmother, Sam hopes to learn, these many years later, how it came into her hands and what connection her grandmother might have had to the aid group.

Meadows rotates sections in strict order to tell the stories of Violet, Iris, and Samantha, three women with very different lives.  Short pieces on Violet (largely concerned with her childhood on the streets of New York and her orphan train experience) are followed by sections on Iris (as she prepares to die) and on Samantha (as she spends time with her dying mother and starts life with her new baby).  Of the three characters, Violet is the best developed and readers will be fascinated by her life on the streets and her experiences on the orphan train.  Iris and Sam have lived more ordinary lives and they are, as a result, less memorable than their ancestor. 

Mothers and Daughters is an interesting intergenerational novel but it does little to explore how the women have been shaped by those who preceded them, somewhat weakening the impact of the individual stories.  The novel’s real strength is in its depiction of the orphan train as seen through the eyes of one little girl who was forced to grow up much too quickly.  Violet’s story deserves a novel of its own; perhaps one day Rae Meadows will give us one.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. Last year I watched The Orphan Trains, a documentary about this episode in our history and reviewed it on my blog. It was a fascinating account of the origin, purpose, and results of the trains that carried New York Orphans across the country. I would think there would be hundreds of novels that could be inspired from this little known attempt to give orphans a better chance. Some of the documented events turned out well, but of course, many were tragic.

  2. I agree, Jenclair, and wonder why relatively so few novelists have covered the orphan trains. Maybe I've just missed them, but it's only in the last couple of years that I'm even much aware of that whole thing.

    I've read that some of the children were transported into Canada (that makes geographic sense to me) and into Mexico (why so far south, I wonder).

    Too, that some parents were able to work the system in their favor by keeping close tabs on their children, in effect hiring them out as farm laborers during the times they could not afford to keep them at home.

    This whole subject is something I want to read more about.