By: Karen Cushman
I love history. It was the one subject that I was excited about during school so I am not why I was surprised to find out that historical fiction is my favorite genre after reading so many different books this semester. I recently read and reviewed a non-fiction book about an Orphan Train rider and my interest was peeked. I did a search in the library for a fiction novel about them and there were several to choose from. I decided on Rodzina because I knew that Karen Cushman had written several other books that were recognized as Newbery Winners and I am so glad I did because this is one of my favorite books this semester.
Rodzina Clara Jadwiga Anastazya Brodski is a 12 year old Polish orphan in Chicago. One cold March morning in 1881 she and some other orphans, "with stiff new clothes and little cardboard suitcases boarded a special railway car at the station near the Chicago River." This train was taking them out West to find new homes. Along the way Rodzina makes friends, learns about herself, and realizes that she is not a good match for anyone. She also spends some time with her memories. Memories of her papa, mama, and two younger brothers all that died untimely deaths. Rodzina had not wanted to leave on the orphan train.
"Once up the steps, I looked back. this was the last I'd ever see of Chicago, this view of soot and ice and metal tracks. On such a cold, gray, blustery morning, it looked like a dead place, but at least it was familiar. Chicago had always meant Mama and Papa and the boys. Now Mama and Papa and the boys were gone, home was gone, and soon Chicago would be gone. I felt like I was jumping out a seventh-story window, not at all sure someone was down below to catch me."
The language of this paragraph really resonated with me. I felt so bad for Rodzina even thought this meant she could have a home and family. She had no idea what her future could hold but her memories were located in Chicago and she did not want to leave those. I could see the way she felt in this paragraph and how I imagine many other Orphans felt when they were leaving their homes. It is hard to leave something that is familiar even if it is not great for you. I wanted Rodzina to find a great home and I couldn't stop reading to find out if she did.
Rodzina gets picked by two different sets of families and I cringed and both of them because they were not the families I wanted for her. One just wanted her to clean up and take care of older people. She tricks them into taking her back to the train by tell her Polish people are very different. The other is the Mr. Clench and he takes her in saying he needs someone to help watch after the other children and they wanted another daughter even though they already had 14. I was immediately suspicious of this for poor Rodzina and it didn't take her long to feel that too.
"Too Many kids? No neighbors, No school. What a pickle I was in", she says.
This is the only part in the story that I think could be controversial but also something important to bring up because it is what some of the orphans had to face. Rodzina, even at 12 was taken in by this man with many children that lived in an underground house in the middle of now where. His wife, who is obviously ill, as the children who don't help her at all said "Pa says she's apt to up and die on us anytime now." The next few pages, Rodzina helps to take care of their sickly mother, the children, and eating things such as snake stew. Rodzina acts as though she is an adult by taking care of everyone but she still shows her innocence as a 12 year old girl because even as one of the children snuggled up to her on the floor and said "I want to sleep right close to you. I won't get to when you move to the bed." (there one only one bed that Mr. and Mrs. Clench slept in the others slept outside or on the floor.) Rodzina even after hearing this wondered why she would get to sleep in the bed. "Maybe the children all took turns." she thought. An adult reading the story could easily guess what the little girl meant but again Cushman paints us a picture of how how she is a strong girl but still just a girl with this innocent thinking. Finally Mr. Clench starts watching her and one day grabbed her and told her to go for a walk with him. Rodzina "gave him the stink face" and fought him back, but she only got free when Mrs. Clench even being sick shouted at Mr. Clench and said she was just a girl and to take her back and find a women old enough to "be a mama" to her children." I felt so happy and relieved for Rodzina when she was returned back to Miss Doctor at the hotel. This was a very hard situation in the book and the one that like I said could be controversial to some.
Rodzina continues on the train but that would be her last offer of a home until the end of the line in California. The rest of the orphans finally find homes but Rodzina is left with the cold non-caring lady doctor that was in charge of them. Through the journey, even though they are both so different, they learn to see each other and care for each other. Rodzina ends up finding a home with her in California.
The characters in this story were wonderful and carefully written. Rodzina and Miss Doctor both evolve through the journey on the Orphan Train. Rodzina started out not trusting anyone or wanting to connect with anyone, even Lacey, another Orphan that was drawn to Ro as she called Rodzina. But Rodzina called her an "intruder" when she sat next to her, and "gave her the mean look" she called the "stink face, hoping it would discourage her." She even stated that she hated her because she was so pretty and Rodzina did not see herself as that. But Rodzina has a soft spot, the children and even Lacey, whom she cares for so much she doesn't want to leave when Lacey finds a good Mama and Papa. Rodzina is put in charge of the children being the oldest on the train. She doesn't like it but she tells them stories, cleans their faces, and calms them down. She goes back and forth being child-like and recalling memories to being adult like and taking care of others. She wants a mama and a papa someone to "boil eggs for her at Easter, someone to tell her when to go to bed, and she worried that she would be unwanted" thinking how terrible that would be if she put herself out there only to be turned down. Cushman reminds us many times that she is just a young girl wanting to be loved.
Crying at one point Rodzina whom had decided in California that she could find someone to marry her if she couldn't find a new family finally broke down
"I started to blubber again."
Quit acting like a child, I said to myself.
I am a child, I said right back.
I could not get off the train a marry a stranger.
I had to grow up first."
This is when we see the conflict that has continued throughout the whole book change. Rodzina realizes that she needs someone and wants someone to take care of her and in the end she let herself trust Miss Doctor and the family the two of them could make together.
Miss Doctor who was a lady doctor that clearly did not want to be a "nurse maid" to the children. She started out mean and cruel. Not caring for the children. But we see something change in her as well. Rodzina always feels like she can go back and ask her questions and as the story goes on even though Miss Doctor acts annoyed with her she still talks to her and gives her honest answers. She shows that she cares in the end by feeling for the children in her care. She takes care of Lacey and feels for her when they fear she is gone. She also sticks up for the orphans and tries to do right by them. She confides in Rodzina telling her that she "is doing the best she knows how." In the end she looks at Rodzina and said "I would miss you if you were not here. And I have been having serious doubts about leaving you in a training school." This is when we realize that the conflict and story between them will continue because Miss Doctor has also decided she wants Rodzina and even though they are both "difficult and ornery" they could try to be a family.
Rodzina leaves dreary cold Chicago and has a hard unhappy outlook on her life, much like the city she is leaving and the weather on that day but in the end, she steps "off the train into blazing California sunshine." This not only serves to show us hope but shows us how Rodzina's outlook on life and herself has changed as well and we all wish the best for Rodzina because she has been through so much in her 12 short years.
I really believed this story and felt that it was pretty accurate with the little information I have read about the Orphan Trains. I think that Cushman really did her research and shows us not only what it was like on the Orphan Train but how many of the Orphans themselves felt. I liked how she included a pronunciation guide for the Polish words in the story as well as a detailed authors note on the history behind the Orphan Trains. She also included history on the idea of "placing out" saying that it started in 1618 with the English boys send to the south to work on plantations. There is also a note about how this type of thing was used to "civilize" the Native Americans, which are also mentioned in the book several times as victims of the "white people." She continues to discuss how during WWII this idea saved many children by sending them on a "Kindertransport." With her author's note you can really see the research and how familiar Cushman has made herself with the history of the United States' Orphan Trains and others like it throughout history. She also includes a long list of things to read about Orphan Trains.
I think this would be a great book to use in a history classroom as a fictional story to discuss the Orphan Trains. Paired with nonfiction text such as the one I read called Orphan Train Rider this could really be effective in the classroom.
I will leave you with this last quote from Cushman's authors note that I loved and I think she showed us through a wonderful story full of history and lovable characters.
"Today there is much debate about what makes a family. Children do not seem to care about definitions; they just want to belong to someone."