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Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed [Hardcover]

Stephen O'Connor
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 8 2001
A powerful blend of history, biography, and adventure, ORPHAN TRAINS fills a grievous gap in the American story. Tracing the evolution of the Children’s Aid Society, this dramatic narrative tells the fascinating tale of one of the most famous — and sometimes infamous — child welfare programs: the orphan trains, which spirited away some 250,000 abandoned children into the homes of rural families in the Midwest.
In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant children, whether orphans or runaways, filled the streets. The city’s solution for years had been to sweep these children into prisons or almshouses. But a young minister named Charles Loring Brace took a different tack. With the creation of the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, he provided homeless youngsters with shelter, education, and, for many, a new family out west. The family matching process was haphazard, to say the least: at town meetings, farming families took their pick of the orphan train riders. Some youngsters, such as James Brady, who became governor of Alaska, found loving homes, while others, such as Charley Miller, who shot two boys on a train in Wyoming, saw no end to their misery. Complete with extraordinary photographs and deeply moving stories, Orphan Trains gives invaluable insights into a creative genius whose pioneering, if controversial, efforts inform child rescue work today.

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From Publishers Weekly

From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 children were "emigrated" out of "vice-ridden" urban areas and put up for grabs in the West, where labor was in short supply. Brace (1826-1890) educated himself for the ministry, but under the influence of Darwin and progressive European experiments like the Rauhe Haus, a children's settlement house, he set about saving lives. Rather than work with adults ("saving" prostitutes or banning rum), Brace chose to save their children. As organizer of the Children's Aid Society (CAS), he devised a series of projects to help street kids help themselves: lodging houses, industrial schools and, finally, the infamous "orphan trains." As haphazard and casual as Brace's adoption system may have been, it was the only solution to child abuse and neglect in America at the time. O'Connor intercuts his narrative with the life stories of a few orphan train successes and failures, as if to emphasize that there's no clear verdict on the CAS and what they did. While the book is organized as a biography of Brace, O'Connor digresses compellingly, drawing readers into accounts of rancher warfare, protestant philosophy and Horatio Alger's pedophilia. With a fast-forward to modern times, he reveals that there's nothing new about the crises in what we now call the foster care system. (Feb.) Forecast: From the typeface to the footnotes, this effort is too scholarly for general interest audiences, although it's bound to be required reading for anyone in the social work field.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Multitudes of street urchins constantly abused or neglected as they struggle for survival--these are images we associate today with urban centers in Third World nations. Yet in the nineteenth century, such horrors were commonplace in most large American and European cities. In mid-nineteenth-century New York, many of these children wound up in prisons or workhouses. Charles Loring Brace strove mightily to save some of these children by providing them with sustenance and then sending them westward by train to families. O'Connor is an author and former New York public school teacher. In this riveting and often heartbreaking account of Brace's successes and failures, he describes the process of adoption, the assumptions behind this massive effort, and the lessons we have learned, or should have learned. Many of the personal accounts of the children and their ultimate fates are both moving and disturbing. This is a very valuable and informative work that must compel us to ponder how we approach seemingly intractable social ills. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Author Has Wrong View of Foster Care July 11 2002
Format:Hardcover
In this book, Mr. O'Connor describes how Charles Loring Brace started the orphan trains, which was the beginning of modern foster care. But Mr. O'Connor has also done nothing more than attempt to turn people OFF to the foster care system! Every other page is filled with the "failures", and the kids that did not enjoy their new homes. Rarely does he describe the successes, the times that foster care has truly helped.
Stephan O'Connor devoted ONE chaper to TWO boys who rode the same orphan train, who later went on to become mayors of Alsaka and N. Dakota. He talked mainly about the mayor of alaska, and harly any about the other one. Even then, he described the "tough life" that Brady faced, making it sound like he hated his homes. Yet this author wrote a FULL chapter on a SINGLE boy who grew up to become a murderer.
Also, in the end, when showing where foster care has progressed to, Mr. O'Connor chose almost all horrer stories and no successes!! As a "product" of the foster care system (3 1/2 years under the rule of the Division of Youth and Family Services) I can say that yes, it isnt perfect, but it DID save me from a lot of mistakes and trouble, and has even STRENGTHENED my relationship with my birth family! Anyone reading this book without background information will be completely turned off to the idea of foster care.
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2.0 out of 5 stars UNFORTUNATE CRITICISM April 12 2014
By little lady blue TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
How unfortunate that a writer today would choose to denigrate the efforts of a man in the 1800's who tried to do good for the starving and abandoned children he saw on the streets of New York City at a time when the only other option for those children were the Juvenile Asylum or jail. In my opinion "he saw a wrong and tried to right it".

The book is not what it purports to be. It is filled with all the negative aspects anyone could trump up to show that the system didn't work. Page after page is dedicated to the `failures' of the system. Yes, there were failures, but the narrative is so one-sided that one would conclude that Brace had ulterior motives and if one or two children came out the better it was only a fluke.

Fact: Some of the children found loving homes and some did not.
Fact: The newly formed Children's Aid Society (1853) did not manage to keep proper tabs on the children they placed.
Fact: The record keeping of the CAS was not as detailed as it should have been.

Well, consider this - 1853 - no cars, no telephones, no computers. With this in mind I can only presume that they did the best they could under the circumstances.

To date, no foster care system is prefect - it does not always work out for the best, even today with technology at out fingertips; however, any system conducted in the interest of the safety of children is better than no system at all.

It is a great disservice to a great man Charles Loring Brace, who despite the failures of the system he created, it is abundantly clear that Brace had the very best of intentions and devised a plan that he believed would be in the best interest of the children he was trying to save.

Perhaps Brace's one failure was that he believed in the goodness of human beings and because of his Christian beliefs was blinded to the fact that not all human beings are good decent people.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and important book. Oct. 28 2001
Format:Hardcover
Some people say you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, and if that is true the United States has repeatedly failed the test. When it comes to dealing with the most vulnerable people among us Ñ children whose families can not or will not take care of them Ñ over and over we turn our backs on horrible examples of abuse and neglect.
After reading Orphan Trains, which deals with the origins of the foster care system in the mid-nineteenth century, the first attempts to deal with the problems of children without families, rather than dealing with the problems (primarily crime) that such children created for society, IŐm struck by the fact that this failure is far from a new thing.
Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the ChildrenŐs Aid Society, which found homes for orphans, runaways, and children who had essentially been abandoned by their families, was both an intelligent and a well-intentioned man. Fighting the prejudice of his time, he argued that homeless children were not criminals and threats to society, but potentially upstanding citizens. All they needed was the love and attention of a family. A noble sentiment, but unfortunately Brace mixed it with another noble, but tragically wrong, sentiment. He believed that all middle class families, especially farm families, were good. So he put New York children on trains headed west to be taken in by just about any family that would have them. Many children were adopted by wonderful, caring families, but others ended up as virtual slave labor. Girls were often subject to sexual abuse.
In hindsight, it is easy for us to see the flaws in BraceŐs thinking.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful, informative read March 9 2001
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This is a must-read for anyone interested in the the welfare of poor children today. Orphan Trains traces the history of foster care in this country, and in doing so shows how the U.S. has never put its money where its mouth is when it comes to poor children. The book is a good read, too, because it's full of moving, fascinating stories of the children and their adventures - like a series of Huckleberry Finn stories, only real. O'Connor's prose is clear and yet imagistic, evoking New York at the turn of the century with all its sounds and smells. On every level, this books works splendidly.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful, informative read March 9 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a must-read for anyone interested in the the welfare of poor children today. Orphan Trains traces the history of foster care in this country, and in doing so shows how the U.S. has never put its money where its mouth is when it comes to poor children. The book is a good read, too, because it's full of moving, fascinating stories of the children and their adventures - like a series of Huckleberry Finn stories, only real. O'Connor's prose is clear and yet imagistic, evoking New York at the turn of the century with all its sounds and smells. On every level, this books works splendidly.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and important book. Oct. 28 2001
By slomamma - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Some people say you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, and if that is true the United States has repeatedly failed the test. When it comes to dealing with the most vulnerable people among us Ñ children whose families can not or will not take care of them Ñ over and over we turn our backs on horrible examples of abuse and neglect.
After reading Orphan Trains, which deals with the origins of the foster care system in the mid-nineteenth century, the first attempts to deal with the problems of children without families, rather than dealing with the problems (primarily crime) that such children created for society, IŐm struck by the fact that this failure is far from a new thing.
Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the ChildrenŐs Aid Society, which found homes for orphans, runaways, and children who had essentially been abandoned by their families, was both an intelligent and a well-intentioned man. Fighting the prejudice of his time, he argued that homeless children were not criminals and threats to society, but potentially upstanding citizens. All they needed was the love and attention of a family. A noble sentiment, but unfortunately Brace mixed it with another noble, but tragically wrong, sentiment. He believed that all middle class families, especially farm families, were good. So he put New York children on trains headed west to be taken in by just about any family that would have them. Many children were adopted by wonderful, caring families, but others ended up as virtual slave labor. Girls were often subject to sexual abuse.
In hindsight, it is easy for us to see the flaws in BraceŐs thinking. But in a fascinating final chapter, Stephen OŐConnor points out that we are making many of the same mistakes today because, like Brace, we donŐt see children who need families as unique individuals. We argue abstractly about whether it is better for a child to stay in a flawed family or be removed to a foster family, when the truth is that there are thousands of factors to take into consideration in each case (of course taking those factors into consideration would require well-trained social workers with small caseloads Ñ which we are unwilling to pay for). We argue about whether a child ought to be placed in a family of his race or ethnic group, or whether any good family is better than none, when the truth is that it depends on the child. Some children feel out of place if they are not in families that look like them; for other children race or ethnicity makes little difference. But to get children to the right place, we need to invest time, and time is expensive.
Whether in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first, good intentions and theories about what is best for children donŐt take the place of seeing children as individuals. As a society, we need to decide if we care enough about children to pay for the time and attention they need.
Orphan Trains has a complex and fascinating story to tell and makes a great contribution to an important national issue.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but mainly negative March 17 2008
By A. Pfannkoch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a quite interesting historical account of the orphan trains. However, O'Connor, the author, uses modern day standards to judge the people of another era. Charles Loring Brace was a man who saw a problem and tried to cure it. Yes, there were racial inequities and girls were not treated the same as boys were. It was the Victorian era. Some of his ideas did not work, and in time better ways of handling children in need of homes were found. But someone had to start somewhere! Children are certainly better off in real homes than they are in orphanages or asylums. Brace's work was the beginning of the foster care system.

Also, O'Connor has a clear political agenda. For instance, on page 236, he says, "...the law's advocates -- like many on the right today, believed that poverty was a prima facie disqualification for parenthood..." Who are these evil people on the right who hate poor people? He offers no footnote to back up that sweeping accusation. Also, I got tired of the negative remarks about Brace's religion. On page 285, he comments on Brace's final book, "about humankind's long march through ignorance to the "truth" of Christ". By placing the word "Truth" in quotes (and not the entire sentence) he is mocking Brace's beliefs.

I would recommend the book. But it would have been nice if O'Connor had had a little more respect for the man he wrote about.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars very dissapointed Jan. 7 2014
By Gretchen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I feel the author Stephen O'Connor was being overly critical of Charles Loring Brace the founder of the Children's Aid Society. He seems to judge Brace's work of 150 years ago according to modern standards. Seems Brace did the best he could do to help the thousands of poor children and families before any social service system was in place. Pioneers make mistakes, so others can do better on the back of his work. I completely disagree with O'Conner's statements (page 220) that "to applaud their (prostitutes) desire to profit from and, at least in some instances, enjoy sex." O'Conner is talking about child prostitutes as well. The context of prostitution he is writing about is derived from sheer desperation and can only be humiliating at best to the girl. Hardly a joy or a desire for profit when in the 1800's purity in women was highly valued.

I would have liked to read more about the children's stories and less about O'Connors opinions of a man he never met, but obviously did not agree with his values. As I finished the book, I read it feeling I had to 'hear' it thru the words of one man who decided not to like Brace perhaps because he did not like Braces Victorian Christianity. Too bad, cause I think the story merits a much deeper analogy from an open mind.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The background on Foster Care Feb. 13 2012
By Sharon Miner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book gives info on this early foster care system. O'Connor's research is obvious, and explained clearly. The stories are remarkable, touching and often sad. This is a wonderful resource for social workers, but will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history centering on families.

My grandfather, a NY orphan, was sent by train to Colorado in 1897 when he was 7 years old; no one met him at the station and by the morning the town drunk found him and took him in. I'm writing a YA novel based on his adventures called "The Wildcat Orphan." The horse-loving but quick-tempered boy grows into a young man who becomes an avid geologist and expert on mining.
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