In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Eastern cities were filled with orphaned, abandoned or homeless children, with little to no social support. And so, with the idea of placing them with a family and getting them fresh air, organizations started putting kids on trains bound for the Midwest. Over 75 years, they relocated 250,000 children.
"Some people had very good experiences. Some people had very bad experiences," said Christina Baker Kline, whose novel "Orphan Train" is the featured book of Lakeville's OneBook, OneLakeville community book event. The program, which includes events tied to the book and encourages all residents to read it, culminates with a sold-out appearance by the author at the Lakeville Area Arts Center on April 26.
As Kline's fictionalized account shows, some of the children ended up exploited as free labor. Even if they didn't, the kids, often poor and from immigrant families, Kline said, sometimes struggled in the small communities.
"Some of them didn't know how to read," she said, "Some of them didn't know how to use a knife and fork." Still, she said, in the eastern cities, "there was little to no social mobility. So the truth is, most of those kids would have ended up dead, or in prison, or in prostitution."
Kline's novel, her fifth, intertwines the stories of elderly widow Vivian, who as a young Irish immigrant rode the orphan train from New York to Minnesota during the Depression, and Molly, a modern teenager in Maine close to aging out of the foster system. The book spent eight months on the New York Times bestseller list and was No. 1 for a month.
"I think that the story really resonates for people," Kline said, "in part because it's an important part of American history that's been hidden in plain sight."
As part of her research, Kline interviewed orphan train riders at reunions in Minnesota with Renée Wendinger, of Sleepy Eye, Minn., who published two books on the relocation — a pictorial history and a fictionalized account — and whose 99-year-old mother is one of the last living orphan train riders. "She didn't have a good experience," Wendinger said of her mother. "She was used for indentured labor."
"Renée was a tremendous resource," Kline said, adding that "it would have been a very different book" without the interviews. "The feelings that those train riders had when they rode, many of those feelings were still present," she said. "Many of those train riders were [able] to convey those feelings of loss and displacement so eloquently."
Kline said hearing about her husband's grandfather, an orphan in the Midwest, piqued her interest in the topic. Placing the much of the novel's action in Minnesota seemed logical, as her husband grew up in St. Paul and they spend time during summers in northern Minnesota. "It was quite familiar terrain for me," she said.
Luann Phillipich, a librarian at Lakeville's Heritage library, said the book has broad appeal — many local teachers are using it in their classrooms — and "seemed a really good fit for its Minnesota relevance." Also, she said of Kline: "She's passionate about her subject."
While all the tickets for the author event are taken, Phillipich said people should check in with the arts center on night of the event for available seats.
Other OneBook, OneLakeville events at the Dakota County Heritage Library include a talk on from 7-8 p.m. Monday with a foster care expert about the history of and myths about foster care, needs of foster kids, county adoption, and the child welfare system.
Group discussions about the book are scheduled for 7-8 p.m. April 30 and 12:30-1:30 p.m. May 1 at the library in Lakeville.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.