A FAMILY APART by Joan Lowery Nixon

I found A Family Apart on Amazon when I was researching for my pre-civil war era historical novel. The story takes place in 1860 and involves (at least partially) the Midwest so it fits in with my subject’s time and location. And I wasn’t disappointed – this book provided a lot of good information about the appearance of the rural Midwest and about how people lived in their farm communities. As I researched, I also discovered that there are many, many stories taking place during the dawn and the active civil war, but not a vast amount about the pre-dawn years so it was a good find in that regard as well.

A Family Apart is one of a series of seven books about the orphan trains and their passengers. It won the Golden Spur Award and is suitable for juveniles; with the historical information and story structure, it would be a good read for them.

A Family Apart opens in modern times when the grandmother of bored visiting kids in Missouri pulls out their great-great-great grandmother’s, Frances Mary Kelly’s, diary. It then jumps to showing Frances Mary Kelly’s difficult life in New York City helping to support she and her five siblings after her father dies. As an author, I’m not sure I would’ve included the beginning and ending modern times because it didn’t seem to really add anything significant to the story. However, the inclusion doesn’t detract from the story at all either. Plus, since it was published in 1987, approximately 26 years ago, perhaps it was the norm for historical fiction at that time.

The story was engaging; I read it in approximately two days so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it an eight. It was a quick, easily digestible read.

After giving a vivid sense of financially struggling to survive in New York City, the story transitions into Frances’ travel on the orphan train with her siblings to be adopted by families in and around Missouri. I could feel Ma’s desperation and hurt when she sends her children west as well as the anger and confusion in her children who each react in their own way. Even though I knew essentially how the story must end – after all, the great-great-great grandchildren are reading the diary and discovering the story – there was enough tension, action, and conflict motivating me to keep reading to find out exactly how the story gets to that end.

I appreciated this book more because it was based on the true experiences of children being sent west to join new families on the orphan train. The characters and plot points were true to life; it’s an all around well developed engaging read.

Source: Nixon, Joan Lowery. 1987. A Family Apart. Bantam Doubleday: New York.

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