Between 1854 and 1929 orphaned and homeless children cast out from the teeming tenements to the harsh streets of New York City were collected and boarded on special railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West. The hope of the organizers was finding families to offer these nine to 13 year olds a home and new beginning.
NOTICE OF ARRIVING TRAIN !
HOMES WANTED FOR CHILDREN. A COMPANY OF ORPHAN CHILDREN OF DIFFERENT AGES WILL ARRIVE AT OAKLAND, IOWA, FRIDAY, DECEMBER 9, 1904. THE DISTRIBUTION WILL TAKE PLACE AT 10:30 AM AND 1:30 PM.
Over a period of sixty years a quarter million indigent immigrant children were sent West. From station to station in small towns west of Chicago they were paraded by poorly equipped social workers before prospective foster parents, many of whose motives were less than noble. Few if any background checks of the perspective families were completed. Children were selected at each stop and those that were not chosen moved on to the next whistle-stop somewhere down the line. There was little or no follow-up and many of these children became little more than un-paid household labor and farm help, often in dysfunctional families. Many were not given the opportunity to attend school.
” THE CHILD YOU SELECT IS YOURS FOR FREE, ON A 90 DAY TRIAL, AT WHICH POINT IF YOU SO CHOOSE, YOU MAY SEND HIM BACK.”
Christina Baker Kline in her riveting New York Times best selling novel Orphan Train (2013) weaves a story of how the toxic ingredients of the Orphan Trains, conceived to rescue children from the depravity of New York’s streets, often cast them into even worse circumstances. Orphan Train is the story of one train rider, a 9 year-old girl, who finally in her 90s comes to reveal her secret story to yet another rider from a turbulent world of another era.
“NOBODY WANTS ME. I HAVE TO GET BACK ON THE TRAIN.” “ALL RIGHT CHILDREN THE JOURNEY CONTINUES, THE GOOD PEOPLE OF ALBANS, MINNESOTA ARE WAITING.”
The story is powerful and Orphan Train is a rewarding read, both historically and emotionally. Christina Baker, in remarkable fashion, creates a protagonist who vividly portrays this little known chapter in American history.
Earlier this year I referred you to Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives @ gordonsgoodreads.com. Riss was among the first Muckrakers , uncovering social injustice in America. It is in his How The Other Half Lives that I first learned the history of the Orphan Trains.
Orphan Train is a novel so well researched that it could be categorized a historical novel. Kline was able to interview four actual train riders when they were in their late 90s. Other works of fiction by Christina Baker Kline are Sweet Water, Desire Lines, The way Life Should Be and Bird in Hand.