Miss Stewart made her way down the narrow aisle of the railway car, touching shoulders and heads, rousing the sleeping and exhausted children. The “orphan train” was nearing its destination.
Jenny gently stroked Olivia’s cinder-streaked cheek. Olivia stirred and whimpered, reluctant to be awakened.
“We’re nearly there,” whispered Jenny to the small child who had clung to her since they had boarded the ship back in England.
“Home? We’re home?” asked Olivia.
Jenny’s reply was drowned out by the blast of the train whistle and the shrill squeal of brakes. The train ground to a stop, groaning amid billows of steam, smoke, and flying ash.
“Children, remain orderly. You must give a good impression to your new families,” Miss Stewart warned. “Now, please, follow me to the platform and stay together until we receive further instruction.
The listless children were too tired to jostle each other or make conversation. They stepped out onto the platform and squinted in the bright sunlight.
“Miss Stewart!” A portly man rushed up to Miss Stewart and taking her hand, began to shake it. “Our families are most eager to meet the children.”
At his words, Jenny lifted her eyes to the cluster of people standing on the platform, waiting. The portly man bustled about, consulting his notebook, then, with a tone of self-importance, he called for everyone’s attention.
“Please step forward when your name is called.” He read his list, matching the people on the platform with children. There were a few hesitant wails from the children as parting became a reality, but Miss Stewart shushed them.
Stern grey eyes were staring at Jenny, calculating and piercing. She felt a tremor of fear. This was her new “father?”
“Follow me to the wagon.” He turned on his heel and strode away. Jenny could hear Olivia howling and turned for a last look at the tiny waif who had become like a little sister. As she followed the tall, lanky man, tears coursed down her own smudged cheeks.
There was a woman sitting in the wagon, and she spared a quick nod for Jenny as she scrambled into the back of the wagon. The wagon jerked forward.
The couple didn’t speak, except in occasional low murmurs. Jenny looked around, but there was nothing to see beside endless prairie, the same flat landscape they had been seeing from the train for days. Jenny’s head began to bob, lulled by the rolling motion of the wagon.
A few minutes? an hour? later, Jenny was startled awake.
Jenny jumped down on wobbly legs.
“Bring your bag,” the woman said, not unkindly.
The room Jenny was shown was small, but the sagging bed with the worn quilt looked inviting.
“Set down your things and come,” the woman continued.
By the time Jenny crawled under the thin quilt that night, she had learned to milk the cows, carried the pails to the spring house, brought in firewood, peeled potatoes, and washed dishes. Her hands were raw and ached with blisters and slivers. She had little time to lament; her eyes were closed before her head hit the pillow. She was jostled awake what seemed only minutes later.
It was dark and she could see her breath by the light of the lantern the woman was holding in her face.
The pattern for Jenny’s days was quickly established. Up before dawn and working into the evening on darning and mending, until she could no longer see by the light of the kerosene lantern, and no rest in between. She had little time to think about the home she had left in England, the ailing grandmother who had been unable to care for her, or the brother who had been sent to another part of the Empire.
Smiling social workers had promised a wholesome life and a bright future for Jenny in Canada, but could this forlorn place ever be home?
Yet, with the resilience granted to her by youth, Jenny grew to appreciate the boundless prairie, the fields of grain, the soaring hawks, and the screaming winter winds. The stern, silent couple were never warm to her, but neither were they unkind. Strengthened by determination, Jenny found a home in the courage that would serve her through hard days, unending as the prairies.
For now, it would be enough.
It had to be.
She was a Home Child.
Author’s Note: Between 1869 and 1939, over 100,000 children from Great Britain were sent to Canada to work as farm labourers or domestics. While the ‘Home Children’ often left a life of extreme poverty behind, the practice was controversial.
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