Saturday, February 9, 2013

Orphan Train Featured in Charming New Book

How I Came to Dowagiac
Memories of an Orphan Train Rider

Book Review

Written by Nancy Marie Payne (
Illustrated by Debra-June Batcher
Available for $10.00 + 2.00shipping and handling from

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

I spent less than one hour reading this slim book, and yet it is still in my head three weeks later. Good things do, indeed, come in small packages.

This book begins in New York City in 1854, when ten-year-old Elsie Dowdel begins her day with everything a child needs, only to end it homeless and with no family to look after her. After being taken under the wing of a “beggar girl” that she had befriended, Elsie learns to live in a crate, to steal food, and to beg.

Eventually, both Meg and Elsie are picked up by constables and taken to the Children's Aid Society, which leads to their going west to Dowagiac, Michigan on the Orphan Train. There the children will be farmed out to families who will care for them in exchange for their help with the chores on their farms. Brothers may be split apart and friends may be parted, but all harbor hopes of obtaining what all children need: “a warm bed, food on the table, and someone to give thanks for.”

The exquisite little details of this book are what make it so charming and so real: hiccups born of anxiety; the very real fear of not getting chosen by a family; the comfort of being wrapped in strong, loving arms; restitution made to clear a guilty conscience. Regional colloquialisms abound, evidence of good research that make the readers feel as though they are traveling with the children from New York to Michigan.

I cried twice as I read this book: once for sadness when young Elsie loses her home and family; again for happiness when she gains a new home and family.

When I finished reading the book, I pondered the fact that all the children in it found happy endings. According to the Author's Notes, agents kept tabs on the placed orphans with yearly visits. One can only hope that this level of attention kept sad stories to a minimum.

This book is a fictionalized account of the first “Train Riders,” though many of the children's names are taken from a letter written by one of the chaperones. The Children's Aid Society still exists. This story, however, is Payne's own charming creation.