LaFaye, Alexandria. 2004. WORTH. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0689857306.
Nathaniel lives in Nebraska at a time when farms are in direct competition with ranches, and orphans from big cities get shipped west on Orphan Trains to find a new life elsewhere. He is lucky to live there with his mom and dad, working their farm. Then there is an accident and his leg is injured. Since his dad needs help on the farm, and Nathan is no longer able to work, a boy named John Worth comes from an Orphan Train to live with them and do Nathaniel’s work on the farm. He is a city boy, not used to farm work, not sure how to do it, and not welcomed by Nathaniel. By realizing they do have similarities, and that each of them has something worthwhile to offer, they finally are able to work together to help each other and their community over come the conflicts that threaten their livelihoods and families.
Author Alexandria LaFaye uses the diction and social values of the time to compliment the stories she tells about differences and about relationships without disturbing the flow of the story. Tools, farm jobs, schooling and death are discussed in a specific historical context while the two protagonists struggle to find a way to share their common ground and overcome their losses. Unfortunately, the emotional reactions of Nathaniel’s father and of John Worth are not deeply explored at many of the most relevant junctures in the book, leaving this aspect of the characters to be mined by teachers and intelligent readers alike. In fact, the family's lack of compassion and anger toward John Worth in the first part of the story are a bit off-putting because of their realistic intensity.
The relationships between characters –Nathaniel and his father after the accident, Nathaniel’s mother and father disagreeing over cattle, Horaces’s disregard for the way his actions in the school yard and on the farms hurt the people around him—are realistic and thought-provoking. They offer added awareness of the motivations and fears behind much of the historically-rooted plot. Unfortunately, no bibliography of reference materials is included in the book for cross-referencing fact vs fiction. Only a short commentary from the author on the book jacket clarifies that “I’d read about the Orphan Train and felt sympathy for those kids who were plopped down in a whole new world…” The benefit is that LaFaye has written the book from a young boy’s perspective, making it easier for preteens to connect with the history and the families described.
The Horn Book: “Each boy wants what the other has, and both boys yearn for the love of their fathers--John's is dead, Nate's is emotionally distant… Heroic stories of ancient Greek mythology and a violent feud being waged among Nate's neighbors both work in the boys' conciliation, giving this short tale a quietly epic as well as an ordinary sweep.”
Starred Review, Booklist: “LaFaye's novel is one of the first to tell the Orphan Train story from the viewpoint of a kid displaced by a newcomer… ate'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).”
==> Great inclusion in a middle school history class for added interest and to discuss the nuances of the rancher/farmer disputes.
==> Use this book in bibliotherapy to discuss feelings of anger, displacement, abandonment, resentment, survivor guilt, and misunderstandings.