Bridie's Daughter by Robert Noonan iUniverse
reviewed by Peter M. Fitzpatrick
"Children are children. It's not their fault how they came into the world."
Just over one hundred years ago, the plight of orphaned children in America was in the hands of extended family or charitable foundations. There was no Department of Children and Family Services and extremely few shelters. There was, however, the Children's Aid Society based in New York City. From 1853 to 1929 they took in what they could for a time and then shipped the children west in "orphan train" cars hitched to the back of freight cars. Prospective parents would come to the stations on the way and take their pick from a lineup of confused and frightened children doing their best to smile and look adoptable. With the smallest modicum of legal oversight, the children faced a truly random outcome of just who might decide to choose them.
Bridie’s Daughter, the second installment in Noonan's orphan train series, explores what happens to a group of four such riders in 1900. Noonan draws a detailed picture of the experience, the rapid changes in fortune, the awkward adjustments, and the renewed hope made possible by these chancy adoptions. Very often these children came into loving and nurturing relationships with childless adults that truly wanted them, but they could also wind up as little more than hired hands, essentially working for room and board. Sexual exploitation and rape were also possible. The author does not shy away from exploring the harsher themes, through a cohesive plot that propels the reader forward with emotionally evocative dialogue and description.
This is the story, after all, of human relationships written in large, bold relief, which underscores the utter need of the times and the thoroughly human efforts to meet that need. It is also our story, part of who we are as a nation. It should be celebrated, championed, and mostly, never forgotten. Noonan's treatment adds to that necessary chorus of cultural recollection.