I really shouldn't lead off my occasional recaps of the Southern Festival of Books with Christina Baker Kline even though she was the first author I saw there. She also had one of the best presentations I saw in the three days. The author of Orphan Train showed us some heartbreaking slides, and told us fascinating stories of history.
Orphan Train is the #1 book club book in the country. Kline has been a novelist for 20+ years, and this was her fifth novel. She has always been traditionally published, always a midlist author with her first four books. She thought her life was great. She had reasonable advances. She worked as a professor, and edited manuscripts, as so many authors do. The success of Orphan Train came as a shock to her. It took everyone by surprise; Kline, her editor, her publisher, HarperCollins.
Why was this book such a success? It's her same voice. Why did it hit a chord with readers?
Kline found incredible archival documents and photos about the history of the orphan trains. And, she showed us some of these photos telling the stories of these children. 250,000 children were sent from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929. This was the largest single migration of children in U.S. history, hidden in plain sight. Why does Kline say "hidden in plain sight"? There are twenty books with this same title, Orphan Train, and yet the vast majority of people never heard of this movement.
Kline's book is a novel, not nonfiction. It's the story of a ninety-one-year-old woman, a wealthy woman living in Maine whose hidden history was as a train rider. It's also the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, a foster child, Goth. She steals a book from the library, and, after being caught, is assigned community service or she'll end up in juvenile detention. She's assigned fifty hours cleaning out the attic of the wealthy woman. She's hostile at first. And, then they find they have a lot in common. The book takes place in the present, first person narrative of the ninety-year-old woman. The seventeen-year-old is part Penobscot Indian and part white.
Before continuing the program, Christina Baker Kline asked that people not ask questions with spoilers in them at the end of the presentation. She said on her web page, http://christinabakerkline.com, she has the top ten questions that book clubs ask, so she probably answered those spoiler questions there.
Kline said she has a family connection to the train riders. The children were from ages two to fourteen. She and her family were visiting her in-laws in North Dakota, and her mother-in-law pulled out a family album. In it, there was a newspaper article about five kids. The oldest one was fifteen, so he had to get off the train and get a job. He was too old for the orphan train. That oldest child was the father of Kline's mother-in-law. The others were her uncle and her three aunts. None of them had told any of the family about their story. There are over 3 million descendants of those 250,000 train riders who rode over seventy-five years.
Kline found a vast amount of resources, but she was afraid to take on the story. However, she gathered files about the stories.
How did the orphan trains come about? In 1853, a Methodist minister, a reformer, Charles Loring Brace realized there were 30,000 kids living on the streets. Poor children were labor. Immigrants were pouring into the city. The Irish were particularly vulnerable. While other ethnic groups would come over as families, due to the potato famine and the English, the Irish were so destitute and persecuted they could only send one or two family members at a time, not whole families. There were large numbers of Irish children on the streets. Brace's Children's Aid Society's orphanage was soon overrun. Brace looked to the bucolic Midwest farms. Sending children to the Midwest was a work program from the very beginning. Future laborers were sent where there was a demand. Notices were placed in Midwestern newspapers saying children would be arriving, and farmers would come. Children were chosen by whoever wanted them.
When Christina Baker Kline showed us photos of the children, she showed pictures of working children in New York City. Boys became boot blacks or newsies. And, they joined gangs for protection. Girls were seamstresses or took care of children. The orphan trains were work programs. The aid societies only sent desirable children with no problems. The children were between the ages of 2 and 14. Then, they were indentured until they were 18-21. Scrappy boys were desirable as farm workers, but at that age, they were often doomed to be trouble.
The orphan trains carried children numbering in the tens to thirties at a time. Kline wondered who was paying to put those children on trains. Someone was subsidizing the movement of children.
The orphan trains ended in 1929. Why? With the Depression, there were even more kids in dire straits. Roosevelt's plans that helped the poor started later, 1939 and 1940. Why end the program in 1929?
In 1854, the railroads were expanding across country in places where no one lived. They needed bodies in those areas. They gambled that kids would stay in the Midwest and not return to New York. The vast majority of the kids not only stayed in the state where they were sent, they also stayed in the same town. By sending kids to these places, they provided labor for farmers, populating the empty spaces. The railroads paid for the orphan trains. In 1929, they built the last depot, and then they stopped paying.
There are fewer than ten train riders still left. Kline went through over 300 archives. Train riders were interviewed. She spoke to seven living train riders.
Not everyone was in favor of the program. There were backlashes in the Midwest. Newspapers ran articles saying stop sending us our garbage, your riffraff. Brace had hoped to get heathen children, Catholic children and others, into good Christian Protestant homes. He hoped that the shipment of children would lead to adoption, but it usually didn't. Farmers plucked out boys to work the farm. But the rest of the family didn't want them inheriting the land. Often they didn't tell the neighbors they took in a train rider. There was a stigma to it.
Why did the children never leave town? Once they were picked out from the platform, they never again saw another kid who rode the train with them. And, they thought the train they were on was the only one. They were given a new outfit, and told to forget about their old life. It was over, and there new life was here. When they arrived at the depot, they were lined up by height on a platform. The platforms resembled slave auctions, and people checked their teeth and bodies. Some of the children took the place of slave labor, slaves who had been freed during the Civil War. The war was over, but labor was still needed. And, the children were indentured until they reached the ages of 18 to 21.
Although Christina Baker Kline could have showed us more slides, unfortunately her time was up. But, she did show us a map of where the children went, actually all over the country. I checked out some of the states where I lived. There were very few in Ohio; none in Arizona, and 3,555 train riders ended up in Indiana.
And, she ended with a little humor. She said remember how she said there was a family connection. Irish children were often sent, including her sons' great-grandfather and his siblings. Even then, there was a stigma against the Irish and redheads. There were always superstitions surrounding redheads; their quick temper, that they were trouble. And, the final slide was of Christina Baker Kline's two oldest sons, college-age young men who are definitely redheads.
Christina Baker Kline's website is www.christinabakerkline.com.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. HarperCollins. 2013. ISBN 9780061950728 (paperback), 278p.