Maybe it’s the fault of the countless hours I spent reading Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, but I am a sucker for orphan stories. A lot of children’s lit, especially historicals, feature children who’ve lost one or both parents and are forced to either fend for themselves or care for younger siblings. My own work in progress is no exception. I guess I love the redemptive quality of many orphan stories, the idea that you can lose the person or people who love you most but there are others willing to love you as well.
Hellie Jondoe ain’t your average uplifting orphan story.
Hellie is a street arab in 1918 New York City, a thirteen-year-old girl on the brink of becoming a young lady but who must pretend she’s a boy so her older brother, Harry, can keep her with him in his gang. Their parents are long dead, and their world is full of pickpocketing, petty thieving, alcohol, and the prospect that if Hellie becomes too attractive, she might turn into a prostitute. Partly by way of looking out for her and partly for selfish reasons, Harry sells Hellie out to a religious group who put orphans from major East Coast cities on trains headed west. The hope is that the children will be adopted, but not all children find loving families. On the train, Hellie meets Lizzie, another orphaned teen who is missing an eye, and Joey, a baby with a clubfoot. Though Hellie fights getting adopted with every street-smart trick she knows, she, Lizzie, and Joey end up on a ranch in Oregon owned by the formidable Scholastica Gorence. Though the arrangement is anything but a cozy family set-up at first, Hellie learns things about herself, Lizzie, and Mrs. Gorence that draw them closer together, even as tragedy is poised to strike.
Hellie’s street-wise vocabulary makes the story both believable and a delight to read. She is anything but the charming, humble orphan of so many children’s books, but she is also more than a run-of-the-mill juvenile deliquent. Author Randall Platt avoids the easy stereotypes of orphans and street kids to create a cast of well-rounded characters. The short chapters are packed with action and smart remarks, along with mounting tension when the reader learns an important secret long before Hellie does. As for the historic value, Platt covers so many elements of the times, from the war to the nature of crime, from women’s liberation and sufferage to Prohibition, from orphan trains to the Spanish flu outbreak. There is also a great contrast in eastern city life and the rural west, a contrast that still exists but was even greater in the early years of last century.
Hellie is a delight, and I am so glad to have gotten to talk with the author as well. Stay tuned for her interview on Wednesday and a chance to win a signed copy on Friday!