IOWA CITY — The picture of three orphans sleeping in a squalid New York City alley piqued Ethel Barker’s interest. The accompanying story of such children hopping aboard trains to travel west for better lives wouldn’t leave her mind.
So, with inspiration from that 1988 article in Palimpsest, a publication of the State Historical Society of Iowa, this Iowa City woman began her own 10-year journey. It has culminated, at the age of 77, in the publication of her first novel, “For the Love of Pete: An Orphan Train Story.”
“I’m Grandma Moses,” Ethel jokes. “It is amazing, but good things do happen when you think they never will.”
The orphans, more than 200,000 of them, must had similar feelings as the so-called orphan trains picked them up in New York City. From 1854 to 1929, they were taken to 47 states, Canada and Mexico. Only upstate New York received more orphans than Iowa, Ethel says.
“There may be a few survivors, but they’re rare,” she says.
A few years ago she did meet some children of the orphans at a reunion in Maquoketa. They helped with fascinating stories.
“They ate mustard sandwiches on the train,” she says, alluding to a scene in her book. “A lot of people talked about that.”
The orphans were also herded like cattle onto the trains and paraded like slaves in front of prospective “parents” at each stop. Some wound up as free help; others found much better lives.
You learn all about that in “For the Love of Pete,” which follows Pete, 14, and sisters he befriends, Iris, 14, and Rosie, 7. Most of the young adult novel, however, takes place in the 1880s around fictional Hartfield, Iowa, where the orphans end up with three separate “families.” All have plenty of trials and tribulations.
“Because of the ages of the children,” Ethel says, “I don’t think this works for younger children.”
“I think it’s a novel for adults, too,” adds Ed, her husband of 52 years and a retired West High School principal.
Hardship is nothing new for Ethel. Her first husband died four years after they married, leaving her with two girls. She and Ed had two boys.
Ethel has always loved to write — her first novel remains in a box — and has attended the University of Iowa’s summer writing festival since she began this book a decade ago. After it was finished, she ran into Steve Semken, owner of Ice Cube Press in North Liberty. He agreed to read five pages, asked for the manuscript and published her book.
Already, Ethel has started another young adult novel, this one following 14-year-old twins from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the end of World War II.
“If I wouldn’t have found a publisher,” Ethel says, “I’d still do this. I love writing.”
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