Homeless at age four, he chose an extraordinary path through nine decades of U.S. history... From 1854 to the early 1930s, the American Orphan Trains transported an estimated 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West. Unfortunately, families waiting for the trains weren’t always dreams come true—often they were nightmares. William Walters was little more than a toddler when his sister deposited him and his brother on an Orphan Train heading to destinations unknown. Separated from his brother and handed over to a cruel New Mexico couple, William’s life became a terrible trial. Through his strength and resilience, it also became a remarkable adventure. Whether escaping his abusers, jumping freights as preteen during the Great Depression, infiltrating Japanese-held islands as a teenage Marine during World War II, or courting the woman with whom he finally built a stable, loving home, William’s astonishing quest paralleled the tumult of the twentieth century—and personified the American dream.
Walters’s story is one of survival. His Marine unit suffered devastating losses in the Pacific. His formative years damaged him so badly that Lucretia agreed to marry him only if he let go of the massive chip on his shoulder. Walters rarely acknowledges how difficult a man he was, something left for Golden to discuss in the almost therapeutic analyses she provides between chapters of Walters’s first-person narration. The combination of his reminiscence and her supplementation—which includes interviews with his children—creates a rich account of hard-knock life in the Great Depression and WWII.
Unfortunately, in the years after Walters’s marriage, his story becomes a recitation of facts. Readers will lose interest in the accounting of all of his jobs over 60 years while wishing to better understand why his sons estranged themselves from their parents. This memoir shares its narrator’s aversion to self-examination, but it’s still a valuable close-up portrait of forgotten and overlooked elements of 20th-century American life.
Takeaway: This remarkable story of resilience and self-reliance is perfect for those who enjoy reading about the “greatest generation.”
Great for fans of Stephen O’Connor’s Orphan Trains, Tara Westover’s Educated, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.
Design and typography: B+
Marketing copy: B+