As with most worthwhile things, it took longer than expected. Like the rest of you, I usually have more going on than I would choose. But it’s finally done.
Fans of Swift River, Tree of Heaven and The Soldier will not be surprised to learn that Native Child is the story of two unusual people brought together by extraordinary circumstances. In this case, however, the meeting takes place in the most prosaic of surroundings, at least in 1922–a small town in the farm country of south central Nebraska. And it leads in the end to nothing more (or less) than a family, one that has lasted 77 years and counting.
Nowadays we celebrate, quite rightly, the “nontraditional family” as equal in value to the two-parents-and-their-offspring kind, but there have always been such families: people who are brought near to each other by accident, or by a combination of accident and design, and remain together by choice. In the past, however, those accidents were very often the result of decisions and policies unthinkable by today’s standards.
Many Americans have heard by now of the “orphan trains”, which conveyed over 200,000 children from the east (mostly New York city) to the midwest, southwest and great plains from the late 19th century until the 1930s. What most don’t know is that half of these children had at least one living parent; a quarter of them had two. And what those who have not already thought it through would realize if they did is that an awful lot of these children were “adopted” in Ohio, Texas, Missouri, South Dakota, and other places not as family members but as servants and laborers and yes, for sexual purposes. As with so many American stories, the facts are subordinated to the role of the tale in the overarching American mythos, in this case a role I’d guess we’d call For the Benefit of the Needy. Taking children away from their (poor, immigrant, drunk, immoral, genetically inferior) parents to send them a thousand miles or more from everything they’d ever known to a new home with strangers who might well impose on them an existence that was anything but a childhood was hardly to their benefit. Even for the true orphans, the most bereft, with no family of any kind, it was an enormous, unjustified risk.
This is not to say that this kind of behavior was restricted to the United States; we’ve all read about such programs all over the world, often for native peoples. And for what it’s worth, I do think that the folks at the Children’s Aid Society and other welfare agencies mostly believed, or at any rate hoped, that they were doing the right thing.
Years ago, well before Christina Baker Kline’s very popular book Orphan Train (yeah, scooped again, my own fault for sitting on the sidelines for so long), having read a brief but fascinating account by a man who was one of the lucky ones–who was a child utterly without his own and found a true family, a new life, a secure future at the end of the line–I was intrigued enough to begin imagining what it might be like to get on that train; what it might be like to actually want to get on that train; what it might be like to find oneself having done so and trying to understand the people who took you in at the other end. And to imagine, as well, the things that might possibly lead someone (someone for whom New York might as well have been Mars) to welcome such a child, if not for despicable reasons. And out of this imagining came the beginnings of the story of Oscar, who was abandoned in a grocery and raised by those dogooders at the agencies, who tried life in a street gang and then threw it all up to request transfer to the west on an orphan train, and Lillian, a Nebraska farm girl rescued from her own orphanhood at 18 by the love of her life, who married her and less than a year later decided on impulse–or maybe out of deep intuition or by divine inspiration, but all of a moment–to bring an eight year old stranger into their home.
My ability to imagine all of this, to understand my own story, is much improved since that day. In the interim I have learned a great deal about making a family by choice, by an act of will, thanks to the arrival of my wife and two of our four children from overseas, and I am pretty sure this had a profound influence on the final shape of Native Child. But all families are made, surely, by choice, even when their existence and growth appear terribly obvious, and we all have our own experience, our own understanding, of the meaning of the word. My fondest hope is that each reader will see something of what she or he knows about family reflected in these pages, and in the sorrows and the joys of Lillian and Oscar.