The historical fiction book I read this month for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2005 winner, Worth, by A. LaFaye.
Worth is set in Nebraska in the late 1800s and begins with an accident that breaks 11-year-old Nathaniel’s leg. The injury is so bad he will never walk normally again, let alone handle the labor required on his family’s farm. Nathaniel’s father brings home John Worth, an orphan boy, to do Nathaniel’s work, and Nathaniel deals with his hurt and resentment at being replaced on the farm and perhaps even in his father’s heart.
Orphan Trains–I’ve been reading a lot about Orphan Trains, so this wasn’t a new topic for me. But it is fascinating–and not talked about much.
In the early to mid-1800s, there were so many, many orphans and street kids in New York City, and they often had very hard lives–sleeping in doorways, starving, begging, stealing. Charles Loring Brace believed the children would be welcomed by farm families who needed extra hands, and the children would benefit by leaving the city’s temptations and dangers and by living with families. His organization, The Children’s Aid Society, sent groups of orphans or abandoned children by train to various locations from 1854-1929.
The Society had requirements for families seeking children: the families were to treat the children as their own, feed, clothe, and house them, as well as send them to school. Older kids were supposed to be paid. There was some oversight, but not nearly enough. Many children were taken just to be free labor. Many were abused. But, many also ended up in good situations. The Children’s Aid Society started the Orphan Trains, but there were other organizations that followed suit.
(Lack of) Description–I noticed there weren’t a lot of setting details or description in Worth. Readers know it’s set on a Nebraska farm, near a small town. There’s little description of clothing, scenery, etc. However, the details LaFaye includes give just enough information to help a reader picture what’s going on.
Some readers might miss reading about all the historical details, but those same details slow down the pace of the story. Children tend to want their stories fast-paced. They want to know what’s happening to the protagonists; they don’t want to get bogged down in details. LaFaye did a great job keeping the story going and only giving the necessary details.
Twist in Point Of View (POV)–Of the Orphan Train stories I’ve read, the Orphan Train Rider has always been the protagonist. It’s understandable. These were children who had dramatic and traumatic stories. However, LaFaye switched it up. Her protagonist is Nathaniel, not John. I really appreciated this! Partly because it gave some variety to the stories I’ve been reading, and partly because it is a good example of how to give a common story a unique twist.
Switching the POV character brings up lots of “what if” questions. Imagine a family takes in an orphan. What if the family already has a child? How does that child feel about the orphan? What if the family takes in the orphan to replace the work of a child who wants to contribute but can’t? What if the child is afraid the orphan will replace him in the family, too?
Another thing I like about LaFaye’s POV switch-up, is that it allows the family to become three-dimensional. In other Orphan Train stories I’ve read, the families seem to be extremely wonderful or extremely horrible. But Nathaniel’s parents are very well-developed and realistic. Both his mom and dad do good things and bad things. For example, Nathaniel’s mom is a very loving and understanding mom to Nathaniel, but she is mean to John–at first. She goes through her own story arc.
Title–Coming up with a good title can be challenging. Titles need to be catchy and introduce the protagonist, situation, or theme, yet not give away the ending. Word play is effective, too, because it makes the readers think, even after the book is done. LaFaye used one word, with a double meaning, and didn’t give anything away. I started the book thinking the title introduces one of the characters, but by the end the title had lots more meaning!
For more info about A. LaFaye, see her website.
Join me May 26 for my next award challenge book, and the 2012 winner, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.
Do you know any descendants of Orphan Train Riders? What books have you read that gave a unique twist to a common story? What are some of your favorite book titles?