In 1870s small town Nebraska, nothing is easy for young Nathaniel Peale. His leg is crushed in a farming accident, so he can no longer help his father on the farm. Afraid he'll lose their homestead, Mr. Peale adopts a young boy named John Worth through the Orphan train system. Nataniel feels replaced by this young boy and frustrated because he lost the closeness he had with his father. He also struggles to keep up with kids half his age when he attends school for the first time. John Worth doesn't have it any easier. His family died in a fire in New York City and now he's on a farm in Nebraska with no idea what to do. The boys struggle to find their place in their new family situations. Their struggle comes to a head when talk of a range war starts and they spot the person who's out to heat things up by cutting fences.
... The author convincingly conveys the boys' gradual realization of the value of one another's friendship. Other themes include the importance of reading and education, meeting challenges head on, relying on and playing a responsible role in your community, and recovering from loss. A special strength of the book is the characterization of Nathaniel's mom, whose fierce anger is emotionally balanced by her dedication to her family's well-being. Although she works as a tinker, she lets her husband take credit in deference to the mores of the time. A satisfying piece of historical fiction. School Library Journal
LaFaye's novel is one of the first to tell the Orphan Train story from the viewpoint of a kid displaced by a newcomer. Even worse than the pain that 11-year-old Nate felt when his leg was crushed in an accident is rejection by his pa, who takes in young John Worth to pick up Nate's work on their small farm. Nate's angry first-person narrative is brutally honest, and, at first, he is bitterly resentful of John, an orphan who lost his family in a New York City tenement fire: "Just 'cause he lost his father didn't mean he had a right to mine." Through Nate's narrative comes a sense of the grueling daily work, the family struggle to try to hold on to the land and avoid failure. In addition, there's some late-nineteenth-century history about the local wars between cattle ranchers (who want grazing land) and farmers (who need room for crops), and in an exciting climax, Nate and John ride together to warn the farmers and prevent the fence-cutters from causing a cattle stampede. Only an awkward metaphor about the Greek myths seems patched on. The short, spare novel doesn't need the heavy heroic parallels; it tells its own story of darkness and courage. A great choice for American history classes. Hazel Rochman, Booklist
Battle of the Books Reading List
Excerpt from Chapter 3, What is a Boy Worth?
The sound of his boots told me Pa planned to go into town. Heard the crisp clomp-clomp of his Sunday boots. I counted back on my fingersno Sunday hadn't come again. It was only Saturday. When he stepped into the kitchen, Ma spoke in how-dare-you whispers. I knew them well.
Back when Pa came home with his homestead papers, saying we'd be moving to Nebraska come spring, Ma'd let her anger out in short hot bursts only Pa could hear. We all slept in the same room back then, but Ma could whisper so slow and quick, I couldn't hear a word of it. But the pitch of it said she didn't take to the idea at all. And whatever had Pa going to town on a Saturday didn't please her any.
As Pa stepped outside, I heard Ma say, "He won't be sleeping in this house."
Who did she mean? The jingle of tack and the rumble of the wagon said Pa headed out for town so I wouldn't see him until noon to know just who Ma meant. Months in bed had made me half-crazy. The idea of not knowing itched in my brain until I was ready to scream.
"Pa taking on hired help?" I called out to her.
"No." The quick snip of her voice and the way she punched at the dough in the bowl I heard knocking against the table told me just how mad she really felt.
"Who's he bringing back then?"
"No one I've approved of."
"Would I approve of him?"
She fell silent for a bit, then I heard her snuffle in a breathshe'd been crying.
I heard her step toward my room, but she didn't come in. I could see the shadow she cast across the doorway, her shoulders stooped, her head bowed. Made me feel thin. She whispered, "He's bringing home a boy."
I didn't understand. She'd already said he wasn't bringing home a farmhand. "What boy?"
"An orphan boy."
Could've been neck deep in snow for how cold I felt right then. I'd heard tell of those orphan trains that brought in city kids to be picked out of a herd on a church stage and brought home like a new steer. The Campbells got a new son that way after their boy was taken by the measles, but I wasn't dead.
"He adopted a son?"
Ma rushed into the room, her face shiny with tears. "No. Not a son. Just a boy to help around here."
Held my breath like it'd keep me from bursting.
"Nathaniel, your father and I have only one son. We'll always only have one." She tried to brush my hair, but I swatted her away.
"I'm not Pa's son anymore. He hasn't so much as said how do."
She folded her hands in her lap. "He has his eye on you, Nate. Comes in and watches you nights."
She nodded, pointing. "From the doorway."
"When it's dark and he can't see me."
Ma shook her head. "Nathaniel, Pa just needs another set of hands around the place. This is the only way he could afford it."
Funny. A steer you'd have to pay for, but a boy you could adopt for free. Not worth much.
Worth. That was his name. John Worth. He stood in front of my bed all bit up by mosquitoes and scratching through a new suit. Pa didn't buy him that, did he? The kid wouldn't even look at me. He just stared at the floor.
Pa turned him roughlike to face the bed. "This is our son, Nathaniel." Looking over my head, instead of at me, Pa said, "Nathaniel, this is John Worth."
We mumbled our hellos, then Pa turned him around to march him out of the room. "I'll show you the lay of the land around here."
Ma stood in the door, her arms folded over her chest, her eyes dead set on the boy, just pouring out the hate like she did every time she set eyes on Verna Crawford, the woman who said she'd watch over Missy while Ma and Pa worked down at the thread factory.
Missy choked on a piece of bread. Died while that woman was doing piece work for a shirtwaist factory. And all that woman could say was, "I've raised nine children and didn't none of them choke when I put them down with a little bread to chew."
Ma near about tore that woman's face off before Pa dragged her out the door. The whole of it froze me to the spot, felt like a ghost standing there staring at that woman bleeding on the floor, the drawer she'd had Missy sleeping in dropped sideways behind her, empty except for the old pocket of Ma's apron Missy kept with her.
Mr. Crawford shooed me out the door and closed it behind me. Don't know how long I stood in that hallway before Pa came to collect me.
This time Pa had turned me into a ghost, sitting there staring at the spot on the floor where John Worth had stood.
But I wasn't going to let that no account city boy bury me alive. I'd show Pa just what I could do. Since Doc Kelly had finally cut me loose from that contraption, I could start moving around a bit, building up the strength in my leg.
The thing looked evil wrong. My left thigh had shriveled up to be as thin as my right shin. My left shin looked no bigger than the bones inside it. Had a big purple scar where the bone broke through the skin. And the whole leg burned like wildfire when I so much as curled up a toe. And shake. That thing shook like a leaf in the wind. Not that the rest of me did much better. I'd been moving my arms, my right leg, and turning my body best as I could to keep up the muscles, but you can't do much with your left leg trussed up.
Had the strength of a butterfly. Near about passed out just swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. "Take her easy there, son." Doc Kelly ran to sit next to me. "You rush this and you're liable to just break the leg again."
"Heaven forbid," Ma gasped, covering her mouth.
"We won't let that happen, Mary Eve."
Wouldn't much happen if I didn't get stronger, but I couldn't do a bit that day except fall back into the bed and let sleep take me off. I dreamed of birds. Pigeons all clustered up on a ledge clucking away like only pigeons can, but the noise continued even after I opened my eyes in the darkness of night. Took me a bit to figure out I heard crying, someone crying on the other side of my bedroom wall. But the only thing back there was the lean-to where we kept the wood for the fireplace. Then I remembered Ma's words, "He won't be sleeping in this house."
She had that boy sleeping in the lean-to like a dog. Well, as far as I was concerned, that's where he belonged.
Copyright © 2004 by A. LaFaye