Train Of Tears
Tucson Author Alison Moore Explores The History Of The Orphan Train.
By Charlotte Lowe
NOVEMBER 23, 1998: BILLY THE KID came west on the Orphan Train. So did the future governors of Alaska and South Dakota. They were three of more than 150,000 orphans and destitute children that rode the railways in search of new homes between 1853 and 1929.
Their imagined experiences, full of horror stories as well as happy endings, are what Tucson author Alison Moore and Arkansas bluegrass musician Philip Lancaster recreate in Riders on the Orphan Trail. Written and performed by Moore and Lancaster, it's theater that combines their talents in ballad, short story and lullaby.
In one song they take you along on the Orphan Train, "a cradle rocked by iron wheels." Moore and Lancaster give hopeful yet wary voices to those prospective foster children in the refrain: "But maybe this town will be my home. Maybe someone will call my name. Maybe I'll be riding forever, riding on the orphan train."
Together they tell the story of thousands of urban children that were "placed out" during an 80-year experiment in child relocation and rehabilitation. Moore said this system began as a philanthropic effort of The Children's Aid Society of New York.
The trains stopped in pre-selected towns where people interested in taking a child would assemble. The children were lined up on the platform or a meeting hall stage and encouraged to perform or sing to endear them to prospective takers. They were sometimes poked and prodded to see if they had potential as good workers on farms. Children not chosen were put back on the train to try again at the next stop.
In her short story, "Orphan Train," Moore writes of such an inspection of one reluctant rider, Ezra:
"Arms were felt for muscle or the lack thereof, eyes checked for cawls. A man with hands the size of paddles, the dirt permanently embedded in the skin, pushed a forefinger into Ezra's mouth and prodded at his teeth. Ezra, nearly choking on the thrust of it, the dirt and sweat, the unbelievable permission of it, shut his eyes tight and bit down hard. The man bellowed and jerked the hand out of Ezra's mouth, held up the finger and shook it at him. 'You little dog!' he yelled."
But Moore imagines other, happier scenarios as well:
"One elderly couple walked arm in arm onto the stage, leaning in a mutual geometry of support. They approached a small boy who had an obvious limp almost reverently, as if they were on the threshold of a gift and finally, just inches away, worried that they might actually be worthy enough to receive it. It was if the child himself were choosing them, not the other way around. The three of them departed, some paper was signed , and they made a different geometry now--the shape of three, the child holding the woman's hand, the man holding the child's suitcase as if they were all going home after a long journey together."
Accompanying the story are two songs, one written by Lancaster and one by Moore. They have performed them together at an orphan train reunion in Kansas and during a costumed reenactment of an orphan train ride in Arkansas.
Moore, an award-winning fiction writer and faculty member in the UA Creative Writing Program, was inspired to begin this project when she saw a PBS documentary about the orphan trains in 1997. Soon after she wrote a short story, which follows fictional orphan Ezra west on the orphan train. It won her a writing fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts last year, which she used to spend a semester doing research at The Orphan Train Heritage Society in Arkansas.
"It's a chapter in American history that most people aren't aware of. It's a story I'm passionate about," says Moore. Metaphorically, it is her story. "My mother died when I was eight. We moved every year after that. There's something in these childrens' stories that resonates in me. "
Moore is beginning a year sabbatical in January to continue her research into the Orphan Train experience. She is currently working on a novel which includes characters who rode the Orphan Trains, and will be writing the text for a pictorial history of the Orphan Trains that is being compiled by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. She and her partner Lancaster also plan more performances.
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