Book Review by Dee Michell
The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman is a horror story! Set in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, 13-year-old German migrant Pia Lange is left with her 4-month old twin brothers after her mother suddenly dies. The chronically shy child manages as best she can until she runs out of food. She then leaves the tiny boys on their own while she scouts neighbouring apartments, without much luck. Venturing outside and into a wealthier area, Pia collapses on the pavement, waking up 6 days later in a church-hospital. A few days later still—when she is finally recovered—Pia is dropped off at an orphanage where she’s put to work looking after babies, all the time feeling anxious and guilty about leaving her brothers and wondering if they’re still alive.
Ollie and Max are fine, we know that, because the second main character around whom the story revolves, Bernice Groves, has stolen them. She’s also fed rat poison to a visiting nurse, and moved house so she won’t be caught for either offence. Bernice, who is suffering her own immense grief at the loss of her husband in the war and her baby to the flu, then makes a living by seeking donations for orphanages, money that she keeps, and by selling babies to distraught parents who’ve recently lost their own. She also feeds her xenophobia by rounding up the children of recent migrants and packing them off to the mid-west via the orphan trains.
I couldn’t have read this book at the beginning of the COV19 pandemic when I was beginning to get paranoid about touching door handles at work and when catching a train meant unnerving encounters with equally paranoid strangers. Nor did I have the slightest inclination to read any ‘plague’ stories being spruiked by book sellers, such as the Penguin Random House list of Books About Epidemics. I felt overwhelmed enough by my news feed and the daily count of infection cases and deaths on Wikipedia.
Reading The Orphan Collector when restrictions are being lifted in Australia was hard enough, what with its eery resonance with the current pandemic and the graphic descriptions of corpses being left to bloat and rot because survivors can’t bear to part with their loved ones. In the end I was glad to have read it because the story has a hopeful ending and because it reminded me of Christina Baker Kline’s 2013 book, Orphan Train.
Orphan Train was my first encounter with a little-known aspect of American history. Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 orphans (in the broad sense of the word, i.e. meaning abandoned children as well as children whose parents have died) in eastern cities like New York were sent via train to rural areas in the Mid-west.
The train would pull into a station and the local townspeople would assemble to inspect them—often literally scrutinizing teeth, eyes, and limbs to determine whether a child was sturdy enough for field work, or intelligent and mild-tempered enough to cook and clean. Babies and healthy older boys were typically chosen first; older girls were chosen last. After a brief period, the children became indentured to their host families. If a child wasn’t chosen, he or she would get back on the train to try again at the next town.
At a time when the rate of homeless children surged and there was little support for impoverished families to stay together, three charitable institutions organised the orphan trains. The charities were supported by wealthy patrons and paid staff who supervised the children on the trains and advertised the program at stops along the way.
Christina Baker Kline found out about the orphan trains in 2003 when visiting her in-laws in North Dakota where she read a story which featured her husband’s grandfather, Frank Robertson. Frank and his siblings had been ‘train riders’ as the children were sometimes known. That, coupled with the fact she has 2 grandparents who were orphans, hooked her into doing extensive research on the orphan trains.
The result is a delightful story of an intergenerational friendship that develops between 17-year-old Molly who is in foster care, and 91-year-old Vivian who was a train rider at the age of 9. Instead of going to ‘juvie’ for stealing a battered and much-used copy of Jane Eyre—orphan story par excellence—from the local library, Molly is assigned 50 hours of community service at Vivian’s to help the elderly widow clean out the attic. As items are removed, remembered and (mostly) restored to the boxes from whence they were taken, Vivian tells Molly about migrating from Ireland to the United States, losing her family in a fire, and Vivian—or Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”) as she was then—being taken to live in the Mid-west.
You must be strong to survive what Pia, Molly and Vivian have been through and all credit to Ellen Marie Wiseman and Christina Baker Kline for writing such brilliant characters. That I was spooked by Wiseman is a testimony to her skilful atmospheric storytelling, and that I loved the Orphan Train as much on the second reading as on the first is the best endorsement I can give.
Thanks to Vida Engstrand for a review copy of The Orphan Collector.
Dr Dee Michell is an academic at the University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell