Wildflowers by Robert Noonan iUniverse
reviewed by Peter M. Fitzpatrick
"Some make the best of it, and some run away to live on the streets"
Wildflowers artfully unveils the dark underside of the American story by revealing the lives of its lower class in the waning years of the "gay" 1890s. Noonan promotes the weak, the feminine, the young, and the un-heroic in the classical sense, who are portrayed as orphans hitched to the back of freight trains or "orphan trains" heading westward from New York City and toward an uncertain future. The era's laissez faire capitalism would trickle far, far down indeed before any kind of child labor or worker protection laws were enacted. "Boys younger than ten working as doffers, removing fast-spinning bobbins filled with thread and replacing them with empty ones."
No safety nets existed in an era of completely unregulated industrialization, not that this novel is any kind of dry treatise on social stratification or the painful transition of our country from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial one. The reader understands these as the simple historical facts that stand behind the soft-focus portrait of Hollywood's little houses on the prairie. Hillary, Iris, and Vera are three child laborers who choose the simple wildflower they pick in the country to symbolize the strength of their bond against the dehumanizing daily grind of low-wage factory work. Together they manage to find happiness and hope in the midst of squalor, poverty, and exploitation.
Noonan wonderfully illuminates the lives of our ancestors. The human spirit shines in his telling of a story of the working poor who are trying to live and not just survive in Alton, Delaware in 1898. His skill in fleshing-out authentic characters, together with a naturalistic plot, make for a compelling read. The truth of his setting and historical accuracy make it necessary to be told.