Saturday, May 17, 2014

Walls for the Wind by Alethea Williams

Western history has been the greatest interest of Alethea William's adult life. The amateur historian has lived in Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon, and she's happiest researching various time periods and places in the historical West. While staying true to history, she tries not to let the facts overwhelm her stories. Story always comes first in her novels, and plot arises from the relationships between her characters. She says she's always open to reader response to her writing.

Alethea, tell us  how your book, Walls for the Wind, came about.

In the early part of this century, I came across an article about a work of fiction dealing with orphan trains. That was the first I had ever heard of the phenomenon of Eastern cities rounding up their homeless and unwanted immigrant children and shipping them out into the countryside to be adopted by the expanding nation’s farmers.

Indentured labor has a long history, as does apprenticeship. The poor were expected to work their way out of poverty and into a trade. After the Civil War, many religious organizations were springing up to help immigrants seize their individual portion of the American Dream, and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps was strongly encouraged. The placing out of children was the beginning of social services in this country, with the ultimate goal of doing away with institutional care entirely.

In my own family, my dad’s brother wrote a little family history booklet that mentioned his parents adopting a boy to come and live with them in their soddy. There was no explanation of where they got this boy, but I would be willing to bet he was an orphan placed by the nuns of a New York religious society with a good German Catholic immigrant family residing on the Kansas plains, following the example set by the founder of the Children’s Aid Society, Charles Loring Brace.

When I first started writing this book, there wasn’t much on the Internet or elsewhere about the orphan trains. In the years between the writing of the book and its sale, there has been an explosion of interest in these children, who were scooped off the streets and shipped out in the hundreds of thousands between 1854 and 1929. There are now many pages of books on orphan trains, a PBS documentary available online, and a museum and research center devoted to them at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas.

I write about Wyoming, so that’s where my fictional orphan train headed. The building of the transcontinental railroad has always fascinated me, as has the ephemeral nature of the Hell on Wheels town that followed the building of the road. My fictional orphans make it all the way to Cheyenne, Dakota Territory, although few actual orphan train children ended up in Wyoming.

Here is a short synopsis of Walls for the Wind: Can even an angel survive Hell on Wheels? When Kit Calhoun leaves New York City with a train car full of orphans from the Immigrant Children’s Home, she has no clue she might end up as adoptive mother to four children in rip-roaring Cheyenne, Wyoming. At twenty-two, Kit has spent most of her life in the Children’s Home. Now she acts as one of America’s first social workers, serving as liaison between the home, the courts, and the children of the streets.

Kit has little doubt she is easing the plight of the homeless children, until the transcontinental railroad begins to span the country and she is chosen to accompany orphan trains to distribute city children as fast as the rails are laid and farms are carved out of former Indian lands. Eastern cities are overrun with homeless children, their parents sick with consumption or dead of accidents and disease. The farmers who take in the children are required to sign a pledge to clothe, feed, and educate them in return for their labor. Is this distribution of urban children to rural environs beneficial, as the churches that sponsor the dissemination insist? Kit begins to have misgivings.

Family ties are deliberately broken so that single children will have a better chance of being placed. Even so, Kit swears an oath to a dying woman that she will keep her son and daughter together. But when their train passes beyond the last settlements in Nebraska, Kit is left with no other choice. Hannah and Helmut, and teenagers Connie and Thomas, become Kit’s sole responsibility.

The first time handsome Patrick Kelley lays eyes on Kit inside the Casement Brothers store where he works in Julesburg, Colorado Territory, he wants her for his own. But circumstances, and a spectral-looking demented gambler as well as Kit’s certainty no one in his right mind would want her cobbled-together family, conspire to keep them apart. When Patrick and Kit and her brood ride Hell on Wheels into Cheyenne, they’re all forced to leave behind everything they knew and find ways to survive and thrive in the raw new American West.

Buy links:

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Twitter: @ActuallyAlethea
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  1. Thank you for featuring the background of Walls for the Wind today. I hope everyone who picks up a copy enjoys this story of an orphan train headed for Hell on Wheels, Cheyenne, Dakota Territory.

  2. My Grandfather was on one of the trains. Someone got him sent him to a farm in PA where he lived till he was 17. He worked hard on the farm and it wasn't a nice place to be. He left when he could and said that he would never want to do it again. He came over on a boat from Ireland to New York City.

  3. Dear Alethea and Jean,
    I've known of and read a number of pieces about the Orphan Trains and include a story in my book: BY GRACE in which another young woman adopts one of the children. Several years ago, I heard the group American Radio while on a visit to Penny Sidoli in Santa Barbara; they tried out a new number and you can guess what it was about! A woman in the audience revealed her grandmother had come west on a train but no one in the family knew more than that because she never spoke of it...lots of sad and some great stories from that era. Thank you for this intro to your book, Alethea..