Set in Montana in 1925, You Belong Here Now by Dianna Rostad is a beautiful story of relationships that bring healing. The “you” in the title refers to three young people who are sent from New York City on one of the orphan trains transporting children out west to be taken in by families and set to work on farms. Each of the three has been battered by life: Charles, a strapping young man who learned to get by on the violent streets after his father died in WWI and his mother took to the bottle; Patrick, an Irish immigrant orphaned by the Spanish flu epidemic; and Opal, a tiny, mostly silent, little girl taken from an abusive mother. In town after town, these three are picked over and rejected until they’re the only ones left. On their way to the last town on the line, they take desperate action and jump off the train rather than be sent back to New York.
Fate leads them to the Stewarts, a ranch family that is in many ways as scarred as they are. Nara, the unmarried daughter in her 30s, is a capable ranch hand and wants nothing so much as to be Papa’s righthand helper and heir—but he refuses to accept that the family’s only son has left permanently for the life of an artist in New York. And Mama, caretaker of everyone else, still nurses a deep wound inflicted by the death of her oldest daughter as a small child. Although the Stewarts desperately need help around the place, Nara doesn’t trust the children because of rumors about crimes committed by other train riders. Mama takes Opal under her wing, but Nara works the boys hard so they will be too tired to get into mischief. But trouble finds them anyway in the form of prejudice by the community, Children’s Aid Society officials looking for the runaways, and dangerous ghosts from the children’s past lives.
Rostad delivers the setting masterly, evoking the language, scenery, and customs of rural Montana with a deft touch. The story is heartwarming without being saccharine. None of the difficulties are glossed over, and each character’s growth is hard won. I recommend this debut novel highly.