Written in 2004 by Valerie Tripp, illustrated by Dan Andreasen and Susan McAliley
As Nellie is happily returning to her home with Gard and Cornelia, marveling at how completely different her life is now than it was a month ago, her reverie is shattered: her uncle Mike, working on a road crew, spots her and vows to take her and her sisters back. As family, he has a right to take them in, and he can't wait to put the girls to work so he can drink their money away. Aware that he doesn't yet know where Nellie lives, she keeps the encounter to herself so as not to spoil anyone else's happiness. The secret eats away at her as she worries that she'll be unable to fulfill the promise she made to her mother to take care of Bridget and Jenny.
While Nellie is incredibly grateful to Samantha, Gard, and Cornelia, she's having trouble adjusting to living in the upper class. She worries that she's imposing too much on her benefactors, and the conversations with the girls at school are difficult to keep up with. Nellie understand all that they're talking about, but her experiences are so different. For instance, when the girls talk about their eighth birthday parties, they mention hot air balloon rides while she was too busy working in a factory to acknowledge her birthday at all.
Nellie has a distraction in the form helping Cornelia with some charity work. There's a settlement house near where Nellie's uncle used to live, a place for immigrants to learn American customs and ways to earn money in their new country. Nellie loves feeling useful as she introduces Cornelia and Samantha around, and translates the bits of Italian and German she knows so Cornelia can converse with some of the women. But back at home, Samantha is upset. Nellie isn't sure what's wrong, but she feels terribly guilty because she knows it has something to do with their trip to the settlement house. As Nellie spends more time with Gard and Cornelia and Samantha with Bridget and Jenny, it seems the family is increasingly split in half.
Suddenly, everything comes to light all at once. Nellie hears back from a school in Boston where she can go learn to be a teacher. Samantha blows up at Nellie, fearing Nellie will leave with Bridget and Jenny and never see the Edwards family again. Quickly, it's revealed that Samantha had been upset because she realized the awful conditions Nellie and her sisters lived in, and wanted to try to make up for what they'd been through. That's why she'd been spending so much time with Bridget and Jenny, and also being sure to give Nellie time with Gard and Cornelia, in hopes that she'd eventually reveal what had been troubling her. Nellie finally tells Samantha about her uncle. As the girls are headed to tell Gard and Cornelia about Mike's threat, they discover that he's in the parlor. Gard and Cornelia had hired a detective to find him so that he could sign over his legal rights to Nellie, Bridget, and Jenny, allowing Gard and Cornelia to formally adopt them. Mike balks at first, trying to con some money out of the wealthy couple, but Nellie threatens him with pressing charges of child abuse and abandonment. He hastily signs the papers and leaves.
The book ends three weeks before Samantha's birthday. She tells Nellie her of her birthday wish as they part ways: Nellie now attends a vocational school instead of Samantha's private school. Samantha's wish? She hopes that the adoption is finalized by her birthday, so that she can have three sisters for her present.
In the early 1900s, it was very rare for orphans to be adopted by anyone other than family. There was no real foster care or social system in place to be sure that orphans went to good homes, either. Many poorer children ended up in orphanages like the one Nellie, Bridget, and Jenny were at in Changes for Samantha. Children adopted out of these orphanages were usually taken on as workers rather than sons or daughters. There were "orphan trains" that took children out to the frontier, where they would often end up as farmhands. Sometimes the children on the orphan trains weren't really orphans, but children of destitute parents who signed formal surrender papers in hopes that their children would have a better life out west.
This book is dedicated to "Tamara England, dear friend and trusted editor, with love and thanks."
Instead of being set in 1904 or 1905, like the other Samantha books, this is set in 1906.
It's specified that Nellie's parents died in December. So the short stories about Christmas definitely take place before Changes for Samantha, as the feature Nellie without mention of her parents' death, and her father even makes an appearance in one.
Gard is a lawyer.
An exchange between Nellie and a teacher at the settlement house confirms that she is of Irish descent, and her referring to her mother as "Mam" implies that at least her mother was an immigrant.
There's a character named Ida Brown in Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who is the adopted daughter of the church's pastor. She mentions that she has to work to earn her keep, since she's an orphan. I'm willing to bet that she came to the Dakota Territory on an orphan train. (Little Town on the Prairie takes in the early 1880s.)
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