The Orphan Band of Springdale, written by Anne Nesbet
published in 2018 by Candlewick Press
Gusta Neubronner, age 11, has just had the rug pulled out from under her slightly-blurry feet.
It’s 1941. For some reason Gusta does not entirely understand, shadowy figures are threatening her family, pursuing her father. At the same time, financial straits have shifted her family to a New York City boardinghouse which doesn’t allow children, so Gusta’s off to live with her Grandma Hoopes who runs a small orphanage out of her home in Springdale, Maine.
But before Gusta has half a chance of starting that journey, her father up and disappears. Where has he gone? Have the authorities caught him and put him in jail? Or has he made it to Canada, his planned destination, where he can serve with the Canadian army in the expanding world war?
Thus Gusta arrives alone on her grandmother’s doorstep with a worried-sick heart, a bushel of dread secrets, one mysterious broken wish, and her beloved French horn.
As she settles into her new home, Gusta encounters a wild mixture of surprises and secrets, painful realizations and warmhearted friendships. In particular, she finds great joy in belonging to the Orphan Band of Springdale, three girls with their french horn, ukulele, and clattering jar of beans making music as real as jam.
Meanwhile, her relationships with a host of Springdale folk — the orphans in her grandmother’s care; her uncle, injured in a mill accident; an old eye doctor with a soft spot for homing pigeons; two classmates feuding over their families’ dairy farms — awaken Gusta to her own strengths, possibilities, and deep-seated values. She’s a quiet sort of person, whose keen sense of justice and love of family run deeply and powerfully. As Gusta begins to see more clearly — literally and figuratively — she learns to find her voice, trust her gut, stand up to power.
Anne Nesbet has written an uncommonly warmhearted story with characters we care about and wordsmithing that makes reading a pleasure. Without weighing down its charm and gracefulness, she weaves in some tremendously important ideas. Prominent among them is a look at what makes someone a “real American.” Gusta confronts hurtful suspicions and prejudice against German-Americans in the World War II era which certainly offer great insight into the conversations of today.
What do real Americans look like? Talk like? Think like? How do we know we aren’t seeing clearly when we’ve only ever seen with our own eyes? What can something as soft and strong as love do to change the world? What does it look like to find your voice and use it for good when you’re just one small person?
Great read for ages 9 and up. Fantastic middle-grade book club choice with plenty of lively conversation topics.