Charles Loring Brace and the Orphan Trains

Children's Aid Society

Rodzina Brodski is one of thousands of orphaned children who were sent West to find homes from 1845 to 1929. She is the heroine of my novel Rodzina. Here’s some of the factual background behind the orphan trains.

RodzinaThis article about the Children’s Aid Society recounts the history of Charles Loring Brace, the man who faced head-on the heavy immigration to the United States after the 1840 famine in Europe. With so many orphaned and abandoned children in New York City, Brace saw the need to establish an organization to get them off the streets. He was the mover behind the orphan trains, seeking to find homes for the children.

“Critical of congregate institutions such as orphanages and almshouses, Brace thought that the rigid discipline of those institutions sapped a child’s self-reliant spirit, and that charity only encouraged children to remain dependent. Alternatively, the Children’s Aid Society opened low-cost lodging houses for boys and girls, set up reading rooms and “fresh air” camps for their benefit, and established industrial schools to prepare them for employment and self-sufficiency.”

The photo above, which shows the CAS training children for office jobs, is one of a number available on Harvard University’s website depicting the Children’s Aid Society in its early years. The organization still exists today. It is considered to be one of the top children’s charities in the country.

The Polish word for family

RodzinaQ: Choosing names. Is there a story behind the names you’ve chosen for your characters? (e.g., Brat becomes Beetle becomes Alyce)

A: There is no good answer to this question. Names just pop into my head, often before the story does. But there is a story behind Rodzina: When I was ten, my Grandma Lipski took me to the Polish cemetery in Chicago to show me her mother’s grave. In front of a gravestone marked Rodzina Czerwinski, she sat and cried. Many years later when I was writing a book about a Polish girl from Chicago, I decided to call her Rodzina after my great-grandmother. I checked with my father to make sure I had the spelling correct, and he told me that rodzina was not her first name but was the Polish word for family. The gravestone marked the resting place of the rodzins Czerwinski, or Czerwinski family. The book Rodzina is all about the search for family, so I decided that while Rodzina was not my great- grandmother’s name, it was the perfect name for the girl in my story. And so she is Rodzina.

Frightened and brave and hopeful

Rodzina

From a recent interview:

Question: You were born in and spent the early part of your childhood in Illinois. What drew you to writing about Rodzina, who set off on an orphan train from Chicago to an unknown home?

Answer: In a bookstore in Berkeley, I found a book about the orphan trains. The cover showed a giant locomotive and a line of children, holding little suitcases. Their faces were so frightened and brave and hopeful. I knew there was a book there, and I was right.