by Wendy McClure
First sentence: “Jack didn’t notice the smoke until there was far too much of it.”
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Content: There’s a some bullying and a fire that kills a family member of a main character, but that’s about it. It’s short enough to be a beginning chapter book, but it might be too challenging for most 1st and 2nd graders. Definitely belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.
Jack lives in a walk up in New York City in 1904. Their family is poor, but making it. That is, until a fire takes both their building and the life of Jack’s older brother. Frances and her younger brother Harold are orphans and living off the charity of one of the many orphanages in the city. Both find themselves on a train headed west, as part of the efforts of the Society for Children’s Aid and Relief Office. But, as all three find out, the best intentions of adults don’t always translate into good things for kids.
Faced with being separated from her brother, and looking forced labor in the eye, Frances, Harold and Jack decide to jump off the train before they reach their final destination. They’re wandering the Kansas prairie when they find Alexander, another orphan train escapee. He’s decided to start his own town, called Wanderville, and while it doesn’t look like much (or anything, really) it’s not his own. Unfortunately they way they get supplies is by “liberating” them from the nearby town. Which, obviously, is going to lead to trouble.
I wanted to like this one. It’s got a good idea — exploring the world of the orphans from the orphan train — and it’s set here in Kansas. I was hoping that it’d be a good contribution to historical/Kansas middle grade fiction. But it’s not. Perhaps it was me, but I didn’t like the characters, and felt the text itself was too condescending and predictable. I felt that if I had a checklist I would have ticked every single cliche off. Bully on the train? Check. Evil man exploiting the system for his own gain? Check. Rugged and slow cop? Check. Sisterly figure who always knows better than the boys? Check. Adorable 7-year-old who is Wiser Than His Years? Check.) That’s not to say that kids won’t like it. I’m sure many will.
I just didn’t.