This young adult novel begins in New York City in 1918 and travels west to a ranch outside Pendleton, Oregon. Siblings Harry and Hellie Jondoe have been street kids, beggars and thieves almost as long as they can remember. But Hellie is turning into a woman, and her brother can no longer pass her off as a boy. After a gang shootout, he picks up a fifty-dollar “finders’ fee” for himself and coerces Hellie to head West on an orphan train and a three-year indenture.
Out of her element, Hellie’s hard-won Hell’s Kitchen skills are not called for as she forms a friendship with two fellow unwanted passengers: the scarred and nearly blind Lizzie and a crippled toddler, Joey. There is also a journalist aboard with her camera, Amanda Collier, who had been an orphan herself and, alert to Hellie’s curiosity and quick wits, begins an interview and instruction.
Finally at the end of the line, the last three children are taken in by the elderly, domineering Scholastica Gorence at her ranch. There Hellie plans her escape but also changes as members of the household become her family. When her brother returns, bringing with him a new legacy and the dreaded worldwide flu epidemic, Hellie is faced with choices that will change her life and future.
Fast-paced, plot-twisting, and both heartbreaking and beautifully told, Hellie Jondoe captures the speech, setting, and time. Characterizations are wonderfully realized, none more than Hellie herself, alive with contradictions, exasperations and her own code of honor. Despite occasional reader distancing slips into the omniscient point of view and a largely unnecessary epilogue, Hellie Jondoe is highly recommended.