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.
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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
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