Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

This book has been on my TBR for a while now and I’m glad that I finally read it. I enjoyed this book but it was very sad. It made me aware of what was, to me, an unknown page in American history: orphan trains. I don’t think that I will forget this book, or the protagonist, Niamh Power, anytime soon.


Image result for orphan train

The story is about Niamh and her family, who emigrate from Ireland and come to America to start a new life in New York. This could have been another story of what life in the tenements was like, but it went in a different direction. Sadly, Niamh is orphaned and placed on an “orphan train” to find a home in the Midwest. This is her story.

From 1854 to 1929 orphan trains brought children from the East coast to the Midwest to find homes and I’m sure it started as a good idea. Some children  found loving families this way, but others did not.

This book is really sad, and yet, it was hard for me to put it down. It has a dual timeline: the present in 2011 with Molly, a foster girl who has been bounced around, never really fitting in, who is sent to do community service by helping a widow, Vivian Daly, clean out her attic. As they go through Vivian’s boxes we go back in time, starting in the 1920’s, and learn about Vivian’s story.

And, Vivian’s story is so sad. No child deserves a childhood like that. There were strict rules on the train, very little comfort, and constant stress on the importance of finding a family. These children lost just about everything and you get a sense of the fear they felt.  You also get an idea of what it must have been like for these children to be inspected like cattle to see if they could be of use in a home or on a farm. 

But, I kept wondering, “How can this be legal?” The hope was that the children on the “orphan train” would be adopted by families, but what was promised was that if a family took them in and fed them, clothed them and sent them to school, then the kids would help them around the house or farm. However, it seems that there was no protection for the children or any follow ups to ensure they were treated well. Anything could happen and it probably did.

It was distressing when Vivian, who was named Dorothy earlier in the novel, reported abuse, and the children’s aid worker did not believe her. Worse, since he didn’t have a place for her, he was going to send her back! As an orphan, she had few, if any, rights. How many children experienced something similar during that period? 

Also, a quick note on identity. When we meet our young protagonist her name is Niamh. But her name was changed by the first family who took her in. And, with each change of her name, she sheds more of her past. There is very little she has to connect her to her past or her family. These kids have lost so much in their young lives, their culture and beliefs may be all they have left. It was just heartbreaking.

The book is well written and descriptive. The story is engaging but I was definitely more drawn into the storyline about Vivian’s past. I appreciate that this story shed light on this situation. I had never heard of an “orphan train” prior to this book and it’s a subject worth reading more about. 

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel has done it again! She beautifully weaves together history, biography and science in her newest book, The Glass Universe. Once again, she has opened my eyes to the world of science and discovery, the people involved and the conventions they defied. This time, I learned about the women of the Harvard Observatory and the discoveries and contributions they made to science.


Image result for the glass universe dava sobel

Summary from goodreads:

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed in this period—thanks in part to the early financial support of another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, whose late husband pioneered the technique of stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. 

Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars, Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use, and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair. 

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.

There is a lot going on in this book. It starts out in the 1880’s and runs through the 1940’s and we read how the Harvard Observatory, the ladies involved and the science developed over time. It was a project that began as a way for a widow, Anna Palmer Draper, to continue her husband’s work in the field of stellar photography. She generously funded the Henry Draper Memorial to carry on his name and work, and the research was carried out at the Harvard Observatory.  Many of the women working on this project were recent graduates from some of the women’s colleges like Radcliffe and Wellesley.  One noteable exception is Williamina Fleming.  She was originally the  Pickering’s maid, but went on to become an invaluable presence at the Harvard Observatory and would go on to make her own contributions to science. 

The fascinating thing is how this project evolved into so much more. Not only was a highly developed classification system created, but, by studying variable stars, scientific discoveries were made. It was through variable stars that Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered a “period-luminosity relation”, which is hard to wrap my brain around, but it is still used today “…to measure the current expansion rate of the universe” P. 262. Later, Cecelia Payne would be the first to realize that the chemical make up of stars consisted of an abundance of hydrogen and helium. They went from classifying stars to making scientific discoveries.

One thing that really struck me was how unique the Harvard Observatory was. By all accounts, it was a positive work environment;  these ladies may have been paid less, but their work was truly valued.  Another interesting point is that the work was funded by 2 women: Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce. These two wealthy women provided the financial support necessary that would allow pictures to be taken across both the Northern and Southern hemisphere. 

It was nice to read how a bastion of learning, like Harvard, welcomed and respected these women. At that time, there were very few places where women had the opportunity to work in science and make lasting contributions in this field.  They seemed to really enjoy their work and the people they worked with. And the directors, Edward Pickering and later Harlow Shapley, respected and supported them.

The book covers a good 80 years of history. There are a lot of people involved and a lot of changes and growth happens during that time. If your already a fan of Dava Sobel, like me, you will find this to be yet another wonderful story combining history and science. A worthy and inspiring read. Pick it up today!

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown 

Modern Girls. Isn’t every generation modern when compared to the previous one? Isn’t this the goal? We move forward through hard work, education and often with the support of our family. 

The concept of what it means to be “modern”-of old world vs. new world customs- lies at the heart of Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel. It looks at a mother/daughter relationship and how each is modern in her own eyes and reveals a history of sacrifice and love that made their lives possible.


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The story is told as a dual narrative alternating between Rose and her daughter, Dottie. Rose is a Russian-Jewish Immigrant who stood who up to the Czar’s Army and then fled to America to start a new life. She is now raising a family with her husband in New York’s Lower East Side, but longs to return to political activism.  Her daughter Dottie is 19 years old and just became head bookkeeper at work; she is smart- a whiz with numbers- and also has an eye for fashion. She has a boyfriend and is patiently waiting for him to propose. Both women consider themselves to be modern and they both have a problem: they are pregnant and don’t want to be.

Rose is ready to get her life back as her youngest is about to start heder.  Dottie is in the awkward position of having to explain that she is pregnant…and the father isn’t her boyfriend, Abe.  This story takes place in New York in 1935 when women had few choices available to them, but Rose and Dottie will make their own choices with the limited options available at that time.

The book deals with several issues: immigration, education, poverty, abortion and women’s rights, but at the center of the novel is a story that focuses on a mother/daughter relationship and the changes that take place in these two women as they both deal with their pregnancies and life’s unexpected changes.

For most of the story I liked Rose more than Dottie, but Dottie is young and finding her own way. I enjoyed the political conversations that took place and wished there were more of them. Rose’s story stresses the role religion played in her life and how it differed from the rest of her family. Her story also has more history and political discussion than Dottie’s and I found this more interesting. Throughout the book, Rose is worried about her brother, Yussel, who is stuck in Europe-Poland to be more precise – and can’t get a Visa to enter the US. She encourages her friends to write letters opposing The Johnson-Reed Act which put a quota on Jewish immigrants. This was a reminder that there were limits on the number of people who could come into the country. Although there were many who came to America to start new lives, there were many more who were turned away. Yussel, who is Jewish, is in Poland with his family in 1935. This is not good and we know from history that he has to get out of there ASAP!!  On a different political note, there is a memorable scene in the novel where Rose takes her youngest son to a political rally, when things start to heat up she realizes that she has to choose: political activism or motherhood. It was sad because there was a part of herself that she couldn’t fully express.  Rose’s story also cast a light on the Immigrant experience at the time. I enjoyed learning more about Rose’s childhood and saw how her extreme poverty led to her political convictions, but I also saw how her mother’s love gave her the freedom to escape to America and create a new life for herself. Her mother wanted more for Rose than she could have in Russia.

For most of the story Dottie just wasn’t as interesting. What was interesting was that Rose never taught Dottie to sew so she would never have to work with her hands. Rose wanted her to use her brain and sacrificed to make a way for her to go to college. Dottie was intelligent, and had a job in Manhattan as head bookkeeper, so she was already headed in a good direction. With the finances available, college would have been an option. However, given Dottie’s situation, she was advised to have an abortion. In 1935 this was illegal and the book provides a glimpse of the whispers, secrecy and medical problems that so many experienced. Dottie, however, wants to keep her baby and is desperately thinking of ways to get this accomplished. I came to really like and respect her as she tried everything she could to keep her baby. She ends up creating a new life for herself which made for an emotional read and at the end I couldn’t put the book down. 

This story is engaging and I enjoy dual narratives so this format worked well for me. This is more fiction than historical fiction, but it was the historical aspect that I found the most interesting. I would have enjoyed just reading about Rose’s story and getting a better look at her political activism in Russia, and then her experience in coming to America, raising a family and creating a life here. There is so much to Rose and her story that draws me in.

But again, it is the mother/daughter relationship between Rose and Dottie that lies at the heart of this story. It is an interesting story and if Jennifer S. Brown decides to writes a sequel, I will definitely pick it up!

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day!

Forest Habitat

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to share a nature poem with you on this Earth Day and Emily Dickinson just seemed to capture the beauty and inspiration found in nature’s simplicity so well.

Isn’t it nature’s seeming simplicity that beckons us to draw near? The squirrels-whom I adore- the bees, crickets, thunder…rainbows, lakes, butterflies. They bring peace and joy to my heart…well, except for the bees which I keep a close eye on when they too close for comfort.  The truth is, though, that the natural world is complex. There are vital ecosystems at work keeping everything in much needed balance and “harmony”. Nature teaches us how everything is connected and that we are part of a much larger community that we call home.  Let’s appreciate nature and learn from her, and make wise choices to protect her in the process.

None of Emily Dickinson’s poems are titled. This poem is number 668 from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, which happens to be the collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that I own and love.

“Nature” is what we see-

The Hill-the Afternoon-

Squirrel-Eclipse- the Bumble bee-

Nay-Nature is Heaven-

Nature is what we hear-

The Bobolink- the Sea-

Thunder- the Cricket-

Nay- Nature is Harmony-

Nature is what we know-

Yet have no art to say-

So impotent Our Wisdom is

To her Simplicity.

The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown 

This has been a great reading month!  I have had a wonderful time learning more about women in science. And, I especially enjoyed reading about, astronomer, Caroline Herschel in the  The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown. I am so glad Doing Dewey hosted this wonderful event during the month of March. I had a blast with the reading and plan to continue reading more about women in science.

The story follows Caroline Herschel’s life from her unhappy, hopeless childhood in Hanover to her life in England where she worked alongside   her brother William as an invaluable assistant. She eventually became an astronomer in her own right, but before this she endured  a difficult childhood and then devoted service to her brother.

She loved her brother, but she was also grateful to him. During the 18th century, women had no independence or freedom; a girl went from her father’s house to her husband’s house. For Caroline, there would be no husband and she knew it. As a young girl she contracted typhus, which left her face scarred and stunted her growth. William Herschel brought her to England to live with him; he educated her to work with and support him. This may sound selfish, but in a very real way, he gave  her a life of her own; a life filled with wonder and discovery, joy and passion. Together, they studied the skies and made discoveries that proved to the world that the universe was much bigger than anyone realized.  It was William who inspired her to look to the skies when she was a little girl and both of them would go on to make history in the world of astronomy.

Caroline and William worked together and their personal and professional lives were intertwined. William’s discoveries and contributions to astronomy are detailed in the book as part of Caroline’s story. I must say that he was very interesting! Among other things, he was the man who created the 20 and 40 foot telescopes of the 18th century in order to see further into the cosmos-and he succeeded: he discovered Uranus. But, Caroline was his rock of strength and support; she was the woman behind the man. She worked from sunrise to sunset with little sleep. During the day she kept house: she cooked, cleaned and entertained guests and at night, she was by his side at the telescope, often in the freezing cold, providing assistance and support. When she learned not to waste time sleeping she copied his notes, wrote letters, learned the necessary mathematical skills in order to help him with his work and as a woman, she kept house.

The writing is beautiful and the author draws me into Caroline’s world. I really got a sense of how much Caroline sacrificed to support her brother, but it was a labor of love. She was grateful to him for taking her away from her mother in Hanover; she also recognized his brilliance and wanted to be a part of history by supporting him. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book is when William expects her to pound and sift dung to make molds for the mirrors. She is shocked that he is asking her to do more and that. But she agrees because she wants to be a part “…in the great work of their life, even if it means sifting dung” (p 191).

Carrie Brown  shows us how indispensable Caroline Herschel  was to her brother and I thought a real turning point came when Caroline realized that it was “more engaging…to be the stargazer than to be the stargazer’s assistant” (p 199).  This comes at a time when William is often away from home (he just discovered a planet and had the attention of the  King of England). As a result, she becomes more and more independent. It is during this time that she makes her first discovery: a comet!

This is a wonderful work of historical fiction! The author makes a few departures from historical facts in the novel, but she explains the changes at the end of the book. Some changes, like Caroline’s love interest later in life, really added to the story.  This book provides a glimpse of life during the 18th century and allows the reader to see the strong gender bias of that time. William and Caroline simply did not have the same choices and you really get a good sense of just how limited the options were for women: marriage or keeping house for a family member. Caroline lived by these rules, but found freedom within them. I was glad when Caroline left Hanover and I enjoyed reading about how she grew as an individual and achieved success and respect of her own. 

How about you? What have you read during Women’s History Month?

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed The World by Rachel Ignotofsky Book Review

This month I read Women In Science: 50 Fearless pioneers who changed the world by Rachel Ignotofsky  as part of The Women In Science History Event hosted by Doing Dewey.

This was a fun book! As I said earlier this month, this book is geared towards younger readers -junior high school level- and is intended to whet their appetites to learn more about women in science. And, it succeeds! The left side of the page has a fun drawing of the scientist, highlighting her main contributions, and an inspiring quote from her at the bottom of the page. The right side of the page features the scientist’s name and field of study at the top of the page with a high level overview set against an eye catching colored background. Everything about this book is visually appealing and drew me in immediately.

The bad part about this book is that the stories are brief-I mean, just the main points, brief. The good part about this book is that it succeeded in making me want to learn more about these women of science. Google was definitely my friend.

It was great to learn that we have, at least, 50 female scientists in our history; but, it was sad that I have not heard of most of them. At the beginning of the month, I could only name a handful of female scientists; now, I am aware of so many more, and some, like Alice Ball, I won’t soon forget. It was also interesting to see  all the different fields of study: chemistry,  biology, botany, physics, astronomy, geology, psychology, genetics, engineering…

And there were fields of study I had never heard of: agrostology (a study of botany that focuses on grasses) and cytogenetics (the study of chromosomes). 

Women have been contributing to science for hundreds of years and in many different ways. Some pursued higher education and worked harder and longer than their male counterparts; others did not pursue a degree, but let their passion for their subject matter drive them forward. 

Florence Bascom was the second woman in the US to earn a doctorate in geology, but she had to take her classes behind a screen so that she would not be a distraction to the male students in her class. Agnes Chase was a botanist and suffragist, she never earned a degree, but became a senior botanist who wrote numerous books and “discovered thousands of new species of grasses from around the world”. Esther Lederberg was a biologist who, along with her husband Joshua, studied bacteria. Her research into bacterial mutations and their resistance to antibiotics helped her husband to win a Nobel Prize – and he never thanked her for her research in his speeches! Finally, Barbara McClintock-the cytogeneticist-discovered transposons. These are genes that “jump to a different part of a chromosome and turn on and off”, and it took 20 years for the scientific community to recognize her achievements. And then, when her work was recognized, she won the Nobel Prize!

It would be easy for me to go on about all of these brilliant women and their contributions to science. This book is a very easy read, you could read it while having a cup of coffee. What makes this book so great is that it really shows you that there are numerous female scientists who have worked tirelessly to better our world; now, we just need to learn more about who they were and recognize them for their accomplishments!

Women In Science: Katia Krafft 

I have been reading  Women In Science- 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world by Rachel Ignotofsky and highlighting one notable female scientist each week from this book. March is almost over, which means, at the end of the month, I will post my reviews of the books I’ve been reading. But, before I post my review of this book, I wanted to highlight one more inspiring female scientist. Really, there are so many inspiring women to feature from this book, sometimes it’s difficult to pick just one.

However, when I first read Katia Krafft’s story I knew that I would blog about her. Her professional life was defined by excitement and adventure, and to me, she just seemed cool…and maybe a bit crazy! She was a geologist and Volcanologist…so she chased volcanoes!


By United States Geological Survey (Website of the USGS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

She worked alongside her husband, Maurice, also a geologist and Volcanologist. They were more than thrill seekers, though, they were scientists who observed and documented their findings. Katia photographed  the volcanoes while Maurice recorded them on video. So, while the town was evacuating, they were running towards the volcano! Individually,  they were both fascinated by volcanoes and together their work has increased our understanding of these unpredictable forces of nature. “They took viscosity measurements and gas readings and collected mineral samples just feet away from erupting volcanoes. They documented how these eruptions affected the ecosystems” (p 107). Their work also focused on ash clouds and acid rain and they helped towns set up evacuation routes.

There is a PBS documentary from 1987 on utube titled The Volcano Watchers that they made if you are interested in watching it.  You can see them, hear their voices and get a good idea of the work they did; you can even see how close they got to the hot, flowing lava.The documentary also has a clip of them going out onto a lake of acid on a rubber raft to collect samples! Mind boggling.

I can’t understand why anyone would run towards an erupting volcano and this is what fascinates me about Katia. I would love to listen to her tell a few stories.

Sadly, they both passed away in 1991, along with 41 other individuals, journalists and scientists, when lava flow changed direction. To live your life following your passion, working alongside your partner, in life and work, is truly a life well lived.


Well, this concludes my weekly segment of a notable female scientist. I had a lot of fun with this event! I have loved the two books I read and I feel like I have learned volumes about women in science. I can now list the names of several female scientists from interesting and diverse backgrounds. Tomorrow I will post my review of this book and next week I will post my review of The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown. Until then, it’s still Women’s History Month, so read on and share what your learning about women in history! 🙂