A Letter from the Author: Orphan Train

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Dear Readers,

A sudden snowstorm, three restless children, and a nondescript old book taken from a dusty shelf were the sparks that ignited my new novel, Orphan Train.

Visiting my mother-in-law in Fargo, North Dakota one Christmas season, I was trapped inside for several days during a blizzard with my husband and three young sons. After endless games of Sorry and viewings of "Frosty the Snowman," we were ready for something new. My mother-in-law began telling stories about her childhood in Jamestown, ND, a small town two hours west, and as she filled the boys' heads with visions of sod huts and seven-foot snowdrifts, she pulled a book from a shelf.

"There's a story in here about my dad, your great-grandfather, that might interest you," she said. Called "Century of Stories," the book was a celebration of Jamestown's centennial in 1983, filled with articles and photographs. I knew that Carole had had a pleasant childhood in a town where her father, a taciturn and somewhat aloof man, had been president of the local savings and loan -- but that was all. So it was quite a surprise to read the article about him, "They called it 'Orphan Train': And it proved there was a home for many children on the prairie."

This story stunned me, and led me to the Internet and the library to do research. In all my years of schooling I'd never heard about the 200,000 poor, orphaned, and abandoned city children who were sent on trains to the Midwest from the East Coast between 1854 and 1929. I didn't know that the Methodist minister who concocted this idea, Charles Loring Brace, conceived of it as a way to get underage criminals and vagrants off the crowded streets of New York, and provide free labor (along with a strong dose of Christian values) to poor farmers in the sparsely populated heartland. I didn't know that most of these children believed the train they were on was the only one, and that it wasn't until the 1960s -- usually at the urging of their own children -- that they began to tell their stories.

I was hooked. Over the next few years I read hundreds of nonfiction narratives and talked to half a dozen of the few remaining "train riders," as they call themselves, all between the ages of 90 and 100. These older people, and their hard-won perspective, fascinated me as much as their stories did, each one of which contained its own alchemy of heartbreak and grace.

The idea of writing about this little-known part of our nation's past percolated for years, as these things do. Then, about three years ago, I found the key I needed to unlock the narrative: an appealingly irascible 17-year-old half-Penobscot Indian girl with nothing to lose who pries the story out of a 91-year-old with a hidden past as a train rider.

Writing this novel took me on a great adventure through American history -- and through my husband's family history, with its legacy of grit and determination that my boys have been lucky to inherit. I hope you enjoy reading Orphan Train as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Christina Baker Kline

 

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