Book Review: Discovery (The Orphan Train Saga, Book 1) by Sherry A. Burton.
Publication Date: December 25, 2018
Publisher: Dorry Press
Print Length: 229 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
While most use their summer breaks for pleasure, third grade teacher Cindy Moore is using her summer vacation to tie up some loose ends concerning her grandmother’s estate. When Cindy enters the storage unit that holds her grandmother’s belongings, she is merely looking for items she can sell to recoup some of the rental fees she’s spent paying for the unit.
Instead, what she finds are secrets her grandmother has taken to the grave with her. The more Cindy uncovers, the more she wants to know. Why was her grandmother abandoned by her own mother? Why hadn’t she told Cindy she’d lived in an orphanage? And how come her grandmother never mentioned she’d made history as one of the children who rode the Orphan Trains?
Join Cindy as she uncovers her grandmother’s hidden past and discovers the life that stole her grandmother’s love.
In this sweeping and captivating story across generations, be carried back to 1920s America, where orphans were transported to uncertain futures by the now little-known Orphan Trains.
Teacher Cindy Moore is not thrilled at the task awaiting her during her summer holidays. Whilst other teachers are having breaks, she is stuck clearing out a storage unit which holds all her grandmother’s belongings. Mildred may have left Cindy her house, but the old lady never showed any love for her granddaughter whilst she was alive. Nor was there any love lost between Mildred and Cindy’s mother, either.
However, the unit contains far more than items with sales potential. Intrigued by a single doll, but frustrated by a rattle, Cindy investigates, and is shocked to find a letter, as well as a trail to an important stash of diaries. To her surprise, the diaries tell of a little girl, Mileta, abandoned at an orphanage by her mother and, even more of a shock, uprooted on the Orphan Trains, carriages of children sent west across America, as part of a plan to find hundreds, thousands, of children new homes.
Cindy’s curiosity about the young Mileta is piqued, and she begins reading the series of journals, sharing them with her mother, partly in the hope of distracting her from the grief at Cindy’s father’s death. It is soon revealed that Mileta will become Mildred in the home of her new parents, once settled in Detroit.
The story is told through a combination of flashbacks to Mildred’s life, as she tells the story of her train journey and subsequent life, and the thoughts of Cindy and her mother, as they discover the truth behind a woman who had always been so closed off to them, emotionally.
As readers then, we are ‘with’ both sides of the story, and Mildred’s telling of her life does indeed feel very raw initially, as a bewildered child, suddenly very alone in the world. She is forced to mature very quickly as life throws some very severe challenges in her path, including her first kiss, bereavement, love, loss, and an insight into Detroit’s dangerous side, through her relationship with Tobias, a fellow orphan who has ridden the trains more than once, and become something of an expert. Sadly for him, he has also become an expert at making the most of a life on the streets, and has fallen in with some dubious people since leaving New York.
The Orphan Trains spread their tracks far and wide, and as Mildred’s life turns again, she leaves Detroit with her ‘brother’ Frankie, a canny former street-child with a curious link to both her present and past, which emerges when they go in search of a future.
With every chapter, we, and Cindy, see the lives that Mildred lived, and how they left her damaged in so many ways. Certainly in the early parts of the book, there is a real sense of threat, both in the orphanage and on the train itself, and I found my heart in my mouth as I read of the people Mileta ends up sat with by pure chance on her journey. At so many points, there is a sense of both danger and opportunity, and I found myself hoping that Mildred could enjoy the latter.
We are very clearly reading the journals of an older woman who has only died relatively recently, and is describing her own youth from that viewpoint, therefore, by that very logic, we know Mildred survives, and through casual references between Cindy and her mother, we find out about the fates of other characters before the end of the book. Despite this, the tension is kept high throughout, and I was racing through the chapters to find out exactly how the story came together, and exactly why Mildred was the way she was later in life.
This becomes clear as the story develops, and was heart-breaking, especially as the pieces of the puzzle between Mildred, Toby, Frankie and others all fit together.
I have always enjoyed getting a taste of a different era or location through historical fiction, rather than non-fiction, and Discovery (The Orphan Train Saga, Book 1) by Sherry A. Burton certainly fits into that category for me. I wasn’t aware of the Orphan Trains, although having read the book, the concept is not that far removed from the Home Children programme, where UK-based children were sent to new homes around the world, including Australia and Canada. That programme did not have a wonderful success rate, and although it is noted that 87% of the Orphan Train children had ‘done well’, there are tales of children being essentially brought in as servants to their new families, abused, or ending up on the streets, in worse conditions than if they had remained in the orphanages. All of this is captured wonderfully in the story, through the children telling tales of others they had known, and where they had ended up. There is also an excellent sense of time and place throughout the book, bringing the world of prohibition, notorious gangs, beautiful suburban homes and imposing apartment blocks all to life.
In the final pages of her own journals, Mildred tells how she has become the custodian of more journals, including those of some characters we meet in her own story; these become the subsequent books in the series. Again, it is the skill of the writer that even though we know where these children ended up, I am still intrigued to find out more about their lives before we ‘met’ them.
Highly recommend for fans who are interested in tales of family history, 1920s America, or who enjoy a hint of mystery in their historical fiction.
Review by Jennifer C. Wilson.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
Born in Kentucky, Sherry got her start in writing by pledging to write a happy ending to a good friend who was going through some really tough times. The story surprised her by taking over and practically writing itself. What started off as a way to make her friend smile started her on a journey that would forever change her life. Sherry readily admits to hearing voices and is convinced that being married to her best friend for thirty-eight plus years goes a long way in helping her write happily-ever-afters. Sherry is the author of The Orphan Train Saga novels, a planned eighteen book historical fiction saga that revolves around the historic orphan trains. Books in the saga include Discovery, Shameless, Treachery and Guardian. Loyal, the fifth in the saga, expected to release summer of 2021. Sherry resides in Michigan and spends most of her time writing from her home office, traveling to book signing events and giving lectures on the Orphan Trains.