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I am interested in exploring how people tell the stories of their lives and what these stories reveal (intentionally or not) about who we are. Like my four previous novels, my novel Orphan Train is about cultural identity and family history.
Change has been the defining principle of Vivian Daly’s life, and from a very young age she learned to adapt, to inhabit new identities.
Orphan Train is a specifically American story of mobility and rootlessness, highlighting a little-known but historically significant moment in our country’s past. The children, many of whom had experienced great trauma in their short lives, had no idea where there were going. I became interested in the story of the orphan trains because my husband’s grandfather, Frank Robertson, was rumored to have been a train rider. 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. In Orphan Train, Vivian Daly’s first-person, past-tense account of her experience on the orphan train and her journey from Irish-Catholic immigrant to Protestant Midwesterner alternates with the present-day, present-tense, third-person-limited story of Vivian’s life on the Maine coast.  (I have quite a bit of experience with this kind of autobiographical narrative, and am intimately familiar with its quirks, subtexts, and possibilities. A photo of Stan and Vic Cornell, two orphans who eventually found a home because of the orphan trains.
You are a New York City newsboy, the oldest of three siblings, or the sole caretaker of a baby sister. Book reviews from Junior Library Guild, School Library Journal, and The Horn Book Magazine are available to JLG Members only.Already a member? Our representatives are happy to help you select exactly the right mix of JLG Categories to meet your specific needs. I am intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal long-kept secrets, the elisions that belie surface appearance.


For the first time, however, I am undertaking a project that requires a large amount of historical, cultural, and geographical research. For many reasons, she has told no one about her early life: her difficult childhood in Ireland and the lies and secrets that propelled her, alone, toward a frighteningly open-ended future. Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children – many of them first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants – from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest for “adoption” (often, in fact, indentured servitude).
The train would pull into a station, and townspeople assembled to inspect them – often literally scrutinizing teeth, eyes, and limbs to determine whether a child was sturdy enough for field work or intelligent and mild-tempered enough to cook and clean. It was believed that he traveled on an orphan train from New York to Jamestown, North Dakota with his four siblings when he was ten years old. Just complete the information on this form and a representative will contact you with carefully considered recommendations for your library.
And I am interested in the pervasive and insidious legacy of trauma – the way events beyond our control can shape and define our lives.
My novel traces the journey of Vivian Daly, a now-90-year-old woman, from a small village in Ireland to the crowded streets of the Lower East Side to the wide-open expanses of the Midwest to the coast of Maine. She spent her entire adult life minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. Charles Loring Brace, who founded the program, believed that hard work, education, and firm but compassionate childrearing – not to mention Midwestern Christian family values – were the only way to save these children from a life of depravity and poverty. They lost any sense of their cultural identities and backgrounds; siblings were often separated, and contact between them was discouraged.
In the course of researching this family lore, I found that although orphan trains did, in fact, stop in Jamestown, and orphans from these trains were adopted there, the Robertson clan came from Missouri.
That research led me to New York Public Library, where I found original materials: lists of orphans from foundling hospitals, handwritten records, notes from desperate mothers explaining why they were abandoning their children.


Over the course of this novel Vivian moves from shame about her past to acceptance, eventually coming to terms with she’s been through.
But now, through a series of events, she encounters a stranger who wants to know her story.
City children were expected to perform hard farm labor for which they were neither emotionally nor physically prepared. I found that approximately 145 orphan train riders are still alive in the United States; orphan-train reunions are still being held in towns across the Midwest. In the process she learns about the regenerative power of claiming – and telling – one’s own life story. As Vivian begins to face the truth about what happened long ago, the past becomes more and more present for her.
If a child wasn’t chosen, he or she would get back on the train to try again at the next town. Many of them, first-generation immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Ireland, were teased for their strange accents; some barely spoke English.
Jealousy and competition in the new families created rifts, and many children ended up feeling that they didn’t belong anywhere. The Children’s Aid Society did attempt to keep track of these children, but the reality of great distances and spotty record-keeping made this difficult. It's humbling." On this episode of Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe speaks with Clark Kidder and Colleen Bradford Krantz about the orphan trains, their experience talking to people who found families that way, and how orphan trains were a precursor to the modern foster care system.



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