One holiday season, about a decade ago, an unexpected blizzard changed the course of my life. Visiting my mother-in-law in Fargo, North Dakota, for a week with my husband and three young sons, we woke up one morning in the dark, the windows blanketed with snow. The boys shrieked, threw on ski pants, and ran outside to make snow angels and igloo tunnels, but after a few minutes they trudged back inside, icicles dripping from their noses and boots full of slush. As the snowfall grew heavier we watched the cars in the driveway disappear, along with any dreams we might have had of going sledding or shopping.
There was no escape: we were housebound. On the second day, after several interminable games of Sorry with my younger two boys, I escaped to find their bookish older brother, Hayden, on his stomach in the living room, leafing through a publication I’d never seen before. Called “Century of Stories,” it was a celebration of Jamestown, ND’s centennial in 1983, filled with articles and photographs. “Hayden, there’s a story in there about my dad, your great-grandfather, that might interest you,” my mother-in-law, Carole, was saying. I knew that Carole had grown up in Jamestown and that her father, a taciturn and somewhat aloof man, had been president of the local bank – 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. I soon realized that I’d found the focus for my next novel.
Every detail this book is rooted in history, but Vivian – the train rider in my novel – goes on a journey that is entirely her own. It isn’t until a rebellious 17-year-old girl with secrets of her own starts asking pointed questions that Vivian finally tells her story. I hope you’ll find Orphan Train as enthralling to read as I did to research and write. Once you’ve read it, I welcome your thoughts and questions. You can find me through my website’s Contact page, or my Facebook page.