RR: What was it that was most compelling to you about the idea of an orphan train?
CBK: I think I was drawn to the orphan train story in part because two of my own grandparents were orphans who spoke little about their early lives. As a novelist I’ve always been fascinated with how people tell the stories of their lives and what those stories reveal – intentionally or not – about who they are. I’m intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal long-kept secrets, the elisions that belie surface appearance.
My own background is partly Irish, and so I decided that I wanted to write about an Irish girl who has kept silent about the circumstances that led her to the orphan train. I wanted to write about how traumatic events beyond our control can shape and define our lives. “People who cross the threshold between the known world and that place where the impossible does happen discover the problem of how to convey that experience,” Kathryn Harrison writes. Over the course of this novel my central character, Vivian, moves from shame about her past to acceptance, eventually coming to terms with what she’s been through. In the process she learns about the regenerative power of claiming – and telling – her own life story.
Like my four previous novels, Orphan Train wrestles with questions of cultural identity and family history. But I knew right away that this was a bigger story and would require extensive research. The vast canvas appealed to me immensely. I was eager to broaden my scope.
RR: What sort of research did you do for the book, and did you interview people who were connected to the Train? What was that like?
CBK: After finding articles online from the New York Times and other newspapers, I read hundreds of first-person testimonials from train riders, orphan-train reunion groups, and historical archives. That research led me to The New York Public Library, where I found a trove of original contemporaneous materials. I devoured nonfiction histories, children’s novels and picture books, and conducted research at the New York Tenement Museum and Ellis Island. I also traveled to Galway County in Ireland to research my character’s Irish background.
In the course of writing this book I attended train riders’ reunions in New York and Minnesota and interviewed train riders and their descendants. There aren’t many train riders left; those who remain are all over 90 years old. I was stuck by how eager they were to tell their stories, to each other and to me. In talking to them and reading their oral histories, I found that they tended not to dwell on the considerable hardships they’d faced; instead, they focused on how grateful they were for their children and grandchildren and communities – for lives that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t been on those trains. I realized that in fiction I could do something that is difficult to do in real life: I could dwell on the stark details of the experience without needing to create a narrative of redemption.
RR: What was the most surprising thing that came out of the research – what was it that you hadn’t expected?
For decades, many train riders believed that the train they rode on was the only one. They didn’t know that they were part of a massive 75-year social experiment. It wasn’t until their own children and grandchildren got involved and started asking questions –there are more than two million descendants, according to some estimates – that they met other train riders and began sharing their stories.
RR: You use two teenage girls as characters, and though they are widely separated by time and circumstances, they share some things. Could you talk about that?
When you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy 91-year-old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels – both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members – they are psychologically similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian – in answer to Molly’s pointed questions – begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.