Child Migration Revisited in “Orphan Train”

Child Migration Revisited in “Orphan Train”

Staff Report

One of the largest child migrations — more than 250,000 children between 1854 and 1929 — happened right here in the United States. Children boarded trains in New York City and were, literally, given away at train stations across the country.

Alison Moore’s fourth novel “Riders on the Orphan Train” chronicles the experience of a pair of 11-year-olds whose lives braid across Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona during World War I and the decades following the Great Depression.

Through her own experience as a displaced child, to her over 15 years of research and professional position as outreach for the National Orphan Train Complex Museum, she is able to share the story of these children in a way very few could.

How did you research this topic?

I went to Fayetteville in 1997 and watched a documentary on the subject, amazed that I had never heard about this huge part of American history — 250,00 children over a 75-year period.

The Orphan Train Heritage Society was in Springdale, and I got hooked up with them and became their outreach program. I participated in their 10th anniversary reenactment. I rode on Pullman cars down to Van Buren with 21 children in costumes and they did a reenactment of the choosing of the children at the opera house in Van Buren. That was the first time we met Orphan Train riders. I interviewed them, and then for about the next 10 years I was doing the program in and around Arkansas, Missouri and in Texas. All the time I was writing a novel and I just finished that. So it’s been a 15 -year journey and it’s not over yet.

How did you put yourself in the mind of the 11-year-old Orphan Train riders?

I identified with this story of displacement and loss because my mother died when I was 8 years old, and I was shuffled around to different relatives before my father eventually remarried. I was drawing on that emotion. The story of the Orphan Train really spoke to me.

How long did it take you to write this book?

Worked on it for 10 years on and off, but I was writing other books at the time. My last collection of short stories called the Middle of Elsewhere was in 2006, which I was working on at the same time, continuing to do research and continuing to perform and go farther and meeting more people who had stories, and learning a lot more as I went.

What was it about this topic that inspired you to make it your life’s work?

It’s astonishing that people don’t know about this. It was the largest child migration in history and it happened here in America, and I was and still am amazed by this. I also enjoy being a writer that gets to perform my writing in front of people. I have it memorized now and don’t have to read from the book, so I can really engage with the audience and see that they’re moved by this.

See Her Live: Moore will be reading excerpts from her book on Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. in the Fayetteville Public Library. Learn more about Alison and her three other novels and many short stories at

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