Telling the story of the Orphan Train through “DeRailed”

By Judi Christy

What would happen if everyone read the same book? No, I’m not talking about the Bible, the Harry Potter Series, or gag me, 50 Shades of Grey. But, a “real” book about real people and real life – and in the case of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Klein, a novel of historical fiction with a subject matter that was purposely omitted from the textbooks.

No one to whom I have asked, had ever before heard of the 75 year movement beginning in 1854 and leading to the (dis)placement of 300,000 children across the United States. This movement, the subject Orphan Train, was also the subject of “One Book One Community,” a program of the Stark County District Library involving several community activities and a one-act dramatization, written by me, stage managed by Leigh Ann Brunoni and (thankfully) directed by Linda Alexander Radak.

The play, that I titled, “DeRailed,” took about 10 hours to research and write, 2-3 weeks to rehearse and less than 30 minutes to watch. But, I have to believe that the impact of the story (not necessarily my words), will stick around a bit longer.

The plot is interesting. It involves a Methodist minister who believed that the only answer for the plight of poor children, primarily in New York, was to send them out west to be reared by good Christian families. These children, half of whom were not true orphans, were nonetheless victims of poverty and abandonment due to the sickness, drunkenness and other physical and mental afflictions that burdened their Irish, Italian, Polish and German parents who had come to Ellis Island in search of the American dream. But, like today, the dream was not alive.

At the time of Brace’s movement, thousands of what were often termed “street Arabs” – (How’s that for being politically correct?!) ran the streets in search of food and shelter, often stealing to survive only to be picked up for their crimes or for their vagrancy and thrown into adult prisons.

Of course, people were outraged. But, as history does often tell us, few people do anything to change its direction.

Enter Charles Brace, a Yale-trained Divinity scholar. A true crusader for social justice, he began the Children’s Aid Society and convinced the rail tycoons to exercise their “do-gooder” gene and put in place a foster program where the haves would help the have nots. The idea, in its purest form was to send the children from the big city to the big country to assist with farming and housekeeping duties in exchange for an education, hot meals, a warm bed and two new loving parents.

An odd concept. You bet. Trouble in the mix? No doubt. All bad. Not really.

In my play, DeRailed, performed last week at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, I tried to illustrate the good, the bad and the truly ugly through a series of monologues belonging to Reverend Brace, a mother, a train matron, various children and a character who I titled, “Sleazy Man.” Spoiler alert – this guy (played in expert smarminess by Chris Cipa) was looking for someone to do more than wash his soiled socks. The cast, assembled by Radak, did a tremendous job, bringing the words to life without the luxury of knowing any more of the back story that you do. None of them, including Radak, was familiar with this part of American history. Yet, they interpreted the characters and brought to life and light the emotions I can only assume to be felt by the actual participants in the orphan train movement. Manuel Halkais portrayed Brace: Zen Davis Vincent – an Irish mother who gave up her son; Alex Derlich – a young man with a bum leg who told the truth about the way things really were; and Paige Alyse, who finally found her way. Other cast members included Janie Davis, Kitty Burgett, Anna Richkowski and Jake Siegler. Every one of them made me proud as they spoke the words with the inflection and grit I so intended.

If you didn’t see the play, DeRailed, I’m sorry. It was a one night deal.

But, if you didn’t read the book, Orphan Train, the library has copies to borrow for free. It’s a compelling story well worth the two weeks you can take to read it. But, my guess is that you’ll finish it much sooner.

I also have a hunch that you will think about it for much longer.

Judi Christy 144w" sizes="(max-width: 150px) 100vw, 150px" />Judi Christy is the Special Events and Marketing Manager for Fieldcrest Estate and a blogger for ArtsinStark