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Best selling ‘Orphan Train’ more popular than previous sagas

Book Cover
William Morrow

(Current fiction & past quality fiction)

Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. The publisher asks, “Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?”

To find the answer readers have kept “Orphan Train” (William Morrow) by Christina Baker Kline, author of “Bird in Hand” and “The Way Life Should Be,” on The New York Times’ best seller list for more than 50 weeks.

The novel is obviously a good read and highly recommended by Examiner who wonders why the perils of the orphans haven’t been more explored until recently?

The answer is that they have, but readers apparently weren’t that interested. A novel by the same title, “Orphan Train” (Dial Press) by James Magnuson and Dorothea G. Petrie was published in 1978. The following year, William A. Graham directed a made-for-television movie purportedly based on that novel, titled “Orphan Train.” It was initially telecast Dec. 22, 1979, according to a review in The New York Times, published Aug. 11, 2014. The review offers a brief summary of the historic background on which these rapidly multiplying Orphan Trains are based:

“In the second half of the 19th century, some 100,000 abandoned or poverty-stricken New York children were relocated to Midwestern families by the Children's Aid Society. Made for television, ‘Orphan Train’ is a fictionalized account of the early days of the Society in 1854. Top billing goes to Jill Eikenberry as a minister's daughter and Kevin Dobson as a photojournalist. Eikenberry shepherds the first group of orphans from New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, with Dobson along for the ride in hopes of getting the exclusive story. En route, the orphans encounter hostility from so-called ‘respectable’ people and danger from a fire and a train crash. The supporting cast includes Glenn Close, five years away from her theatrical-movie debut in ‘The World According to Garp.’” – Copyright © The New York Times

Apparently the movie is making the rounds again on the coattails of Christina Baker Kline’s best seller success. Examiner attributed the origin of an eccentric cowboy character in his 2005 novel “Splat!” to his having come West on an orphan train, that mention attributed to having read of the trains in something by historian Forrest McDonald.

Reiterating the chain of non-linked episodes could go on endlessly without making a point. But there is a point here somewhere. Dorothea G. Petrie has turned out successful motion pictures for more than three decades; her signature film often noted is “The Face on the Milk Carton.” Her late husband Daniel Petrie did the same, his signature film being “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Then of course we can wander back to the original “Orphan Train” co-author James Magnuson, a crusty old bugger if there ever was one. He’s ground out at least eight previous novels in addition to his new novel, “Famous Writers I Have Known” (W. W. Norton). He is a former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for his fiction, and the winner of the Jesse Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Magnuson currently directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Of “Famous Writers I Have Known” The Washington Post is quoted by the publisher as having written: “A triumphantly preposterous fish-out-of-water campus caper . . . hilarious.”

Examiner notes in following the trail of Orphan Train novels (about a dozen books) and movies, their creative originators and perpetuators should all stand tall, because without the repetition of the story readers and viewers alike might not awaken to such a compelling part of Americana. True, nihil sub sole novum, there’s nothing new under the sun, so look forward to the next motion picture. Or, if you can’t wait, visit the museum, National Orphan Train Complex, 300 Washington St., Concordia, Kansas; or The Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, 233 S. Academy, Opelousas, La. To preserve and document the history of orphan train riders, Mary Ellen Johnson founded the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America in 1986. The society sponsors reunions and publications, offers a website, and maintains a research center in Springdale, Arkansas.

For a more colloquial piece of fiction, try “For the Love of Pete: An Orphan Train Story” (Ice Cube Press) by Ethel Barker, illustrated by Susan Dresdale, described on Amazon as “a well woven story of historical fact and adventure. Following the unlikely murder of their mother, Iris and her sister Rosie flee a New York tenement and begin their struggle to survive on the streets of a squalid slum. After three hungry days, the girls meet a self-proclaimed Street Rat, named Pete, who buys them food and treats them with kindness. A strong bond of friendship and devotion develop between these three. Loyalty to one another provides them with the courage needed to persevere through one shocking event after another as they are taken on the Orphan Train from New York City to the land of Iowa. In spite of their longing to be reunited, Iris, Rosie, and Pete are forcibly and unjustly kept apart. Each of the three children tells his/her story about the love that sustains them through painfully hard times.”