Joan Lowery Nixon published A Family Apart
, the first book in her middle-grade series Orphan Train Adventures
, in 1995. Set in mid-nineteenth-century America, the historical novel follows the lives of six children whose mother is forced to give them up for adoption through the orphan train program, which moved young people away from the East Coast and to the Midwest. In this first installment of the series, the focus is on the oldest of the siblings, whose experiences in her new surroundings give her an eye-opening first hand education about loyalty, gender norms, and the repercussions of slavery.
The novel opens with a framing narrative set in the present day, as modern children gather at Grandma Briley’s house and ask her to tell them the stories of her mother, who as a young girl was adopted through the orphan train program. The novel’s narrative time frame then shifts to 1856, as we meet the family whose lives will make up the book series.
The Kellys are a poor Irish family living in New York City, even before their prospects grow dim when their father dies unexpectedly in a factory accident. Unmoored by widowhood, Mrs. Kelly worries about providing for her six children, who range in age from thirteen-year-old Frances to five-year-old Petey. When mischievous ten-year-old Mike gets in trouble for stealing, the authorities suspect that he is liable to become a street kid – considered a criminal menace at the time. Mike is threatened with jail time unless Mrs. Kelly is willing to send him away to be adopted – she decides that maybe out West, the kids find better families. Horrified by her mother’s decision, Frances yells that she will never forgive her.
After boarding the orphan train alongside other poor or actually orphaned children, the Kelly siblings take a slow monotonous journey toward the Midwest. One bit of excitement is when the train is boarded by three outlaws, who rob the other passengers – Mike uses his skills to recover a ring from the outlaws and return it to the woman it originally belonged to.
At each train stop, the Kellys and the other children line up outside the train as local families decide whether or not to adopt them. It turns out that most children will be adopted only in the loosest sense of the word: they will be taken in by families who need extra farm workers, and who will not necessarily think of the orphans as family members or treat them particularly well. In order to limit abuse, the Children’s Aid Society – the group setting up the orphan train adoption program – will visit each child twice a year to check for adequate nutrition, hygiene, and general well-being.
Frances quickly realizes the other nightmare of this program is that siblings are rarely adopted together and that she and her brothers and sisters are most likely going to be split up. By the time they get to the town of St. Joseph, Missouri, Frances has decided that she must do her best to protect Petey, the youngest, by being adopted by the same family. She disguises herself as a boy to up her chances.
Frances – now Frankie – and Petey are adopted by the Busbys, a family in St. Joseph. Frankie’s first challenges are getting used to farm life. She learns how to milk a cow, care for the horses, feed the animals, and cut wheat from a field in order to help the harvest. At the same time, Frankie must at all times be conscious of behaving like a boy rather than a girl, since that is what the Busbys believe her to be. She has a few close calls, like the time she decides to help Mrs. Busby with the dishes and startles the woman, since “you don’t often find boys willing to do women’s work.” In order to quash Mrs. Busby’s suspicions that Frankie is an oddly “gentle boy,” Frankie picks a fight with Elton Busby.
The main activity in the Busbys’ life is helping escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad. The family moved to their farm from New England specifically for the purpose of living out their ideals of abolitionism. After they take in Frankie and Petey, Mr. Busby learns that they must transport a group of slaves to the next house on the Railroad’s path. As Frankie drives the hay wagon hiding the people, a group of bounty hunters tracking the escapees almost catches up with her.
Frankie does manage to safely convey the group to their next hiding place, but the danger for her isn’t over. The bounty hunters find a slave’s scarf on the ground and take Frankie into custody to question her further. But as luck would have it, as soon as the bounty hunters drag Frankie back to the Busby house, the representatives from the Children’s Aid Society arrive for their biannual visit. Frankie’s disguise falls apart, and her actually being a girl is revealed to everyone. The bounty hunters are flummoxed – surely a girl wouldn’t have anything to do with the Underground Railroad – and so Frances is allowed to go free.
The novel ends with Frances wondering whether her family will ever be able to reunite – a question answered in the rest of the series.