A poignant tale set in the post-Civil War era of the United States in the rough-and-tumble boom towns that follow the transcontinental railway as it was being built. The author focuses heavily on the often-forgotten plight of orphaned and immigrant children from the crowded cities of the East where they disembarked from the “coffin ships.” Many were packed on “orphan trains” heading west. The book leads off in New York City and eventually heads to Dakota Territory as readers learn about plight of these orphans.
Several children’s welfare movements began to deal with the thousands of homeless children of indentured servants and impoverished immigrants. One of these programs was a welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from the highly populated Eastern cities and placed them in foster homes located throughout the rural Midwest. These trains operated from 1854 to 1929 and relocated some 200,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless children. Their plight is the core of Alethea Williams’ historical fiction titled Walls for the Wind.
Kit Calhoun’s character, the protagonist, was created to portray one youngster among the estimated 34,000 children roaming the streets of New York City, enmeshed in despair and hopelessness in the 1850s. Kit eventually finds herself in the care of the influential Reverend Howe, founder, and director of the Immigrant Children’s Asylum. Kit is fortunate as she is given education and training as a young ward. As time passes and Kit grows older, she takes a job as assistant to the elderly director, Rev. Howe. Having felt the genuine love and care from a person to redirect the course of her own life, Kit passionately goes about the task of rescuing other homeless children.
Kit finds the work empowering and important, but she also faces an inner struggle at times that the author, Alethea Williams, expertly develops. The author is adept at weaving historical fact, vivid descriptions of the times, and an engrossing plot-line through a young woman’s perspective in this male dominated time. A poignant tale set in the post-Civil War era of the United States in the rough-and-tumble boom towns that follow the transcontinental railway as it was being built. The author focuses heavily on the often-forgotten plight of orphaned and immigrant children from the crowded cities of the East where they disembarked from the “coffin ships.” Many were packed on “orphan trains” heading west. The book leads off in New York City and eventually heads to Dakota Territory as readers learn about plight of these orphans.
The pace of the novel picks up when Kit heads west on an orphan train to help place children with farm families on the frontier. Obviously, Kit would like to see the children adopted by loving parents, but what she quickly discovers is the families the children are being placed with, treat the children as little more than indentured servants who are forced to pay for their room and board as farmhands and laborers with little nurturing or no time for education.
Not being able to accept this fate for four particular children, Kit decides to adopt them herself when the Orphan Train reaches its destination in Colorado.
Though her actions are noble, supporting her newly adopted children is a struggle. They live out of a tent and Kit must take in laundry to earn money. But it’s never enough. To make matters worse, she is assaulted by a gambler. At this point, Kit has total disdain for men as she has come to the belief that all men are users and want women for only one thing. When she finally encounters a man that breaks this mold she openly struggles with trust issues.
A vivid and multi-layered take on a the turbulent post-Civil War times that examines with wide open eyes the Wild West environs and the human cost of the “Manifest Destiny” that lead to Transcontinental railway and the U.S. expansion west.
Author Alethea Williams characters portray the difficulties and challenges of these hard scrabble times with a refreshing perspective from a young woman who is trying to make her way. The closing chapters of this powerful tale play out this struggle in breathtaking fashion. An enlightening and informative read of the United States’ not so distant past.