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Monday, March 8, 2010

True Story of an Orphan Train Rider

An Afternoon With Donna Nordmark Aviles

     Hello!  Hello, Everyone!  I'm so glad you're here to meet our esteemed guest.  Please pull your chairs in close and have some refreshments while Donna N. Aviles shares with us the stories of her very own grampa'.  Oliver Nordmark was an actual Rider on one of the Orphan Trains and I know you are all anxious to hear of some of his experiences.

Donna:     Thank you so much for having me here today Joany. I am so appreciative of your posting on the orphan trains and it is my wish to spread the word about this missing piece of history, so I thank you for helping me with that mission.

Yaya:     Everyone will want to read Donna's books, of course, as there is so much more to learn than can possibly be shared in just one visit.  You can get her books at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and any other bookstores where great authors impart pieces of their souls.  I just learned that Donna's books are now available for your Kindle, as well as in hard copy!  Of course, you can also buy directly from Donna by going to her website and scrolling to near the bottom of the page. All of the books are listed and there is an option to have Donna sign each book. Shall we begin, then?

Yaya:     Donna, I'm so happy to be able to visit with you.  Thank you for agreeing to be here.  I recently posted a message on my blog about some of the history of Orphan Trains and was surprised and thrilled when you commented, saying that your grampa' was a rider on one of the orphan trains.

     Naturally, I could hardly contain my excitement long enough to contact you.  I have enjoyed the emails back and forth as we've gotten to know each other and become friends.

     You've written three books, all about your grampa's unique experiences.  Your first book is called FLY LITTLE BIRD, FLY! and tells the story of Oliver and his little brother, Edward, traveling on an Orphan Train from New York City to Kansas.  We see them uprooted, at seven and four years old, from their home and parents and placed, after Oliver's brief stay in prison, into a very strict orphanage.

     Did your grampa' ever share with you what it felt like to be thrown into prison at such a young age?

Donna:     Yes, he was frightened and confused.  He had no idea that playing hooky from school was a bad thing and that it would land him in a detention center.  He had overheard older kids talking about doing it and how much fun they had and Oliver thought it was something that every kid was allowed to do - sort of like a personal holiday.  So he just picked a day for himself to play hooky and spent the day walking up and down in front of the school with no idea that he was doing anything wrong.  He got caught of course and was taken the very next day to the prison.  His exact quote about the incident was, "That was the ruination of me right there."

 Yaya:   I read your first book, FLY LITTLE BIRD, FLY! and I'm in the middle of your second book, BEYOND THE ORPHAN TRAINS.  I must say, you do have a knack for drawing your reader into the story and making them a part of the action.  I'm anxious to read your third book, PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES. Could you tell us a little bit about this book?

Donna:     Thank you so much Joany, I'm glad you're enjoying Oliver's story! PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES begins eleven years after the ending of BEYOND THE ORPHAN TRAIN, my second book.  Oliver and Estella are married and they have six children ranging in ages from 1 1/2 (my father Benny) to 10 1/2 (my aunt May).  The year is 1930 and it is about six months after the collapse of the stock market. Oliver, who had a job working in the silk mill, has been laid off and things are getting desperate.  When Estella sees a sign in the window of the coffee shop at the Indian Queen Hotel, she convinces Oliver to let her apply for the job.  He reluctantly gives in and Estella interviews for and gets the job, but with tragic results.  Having had no real parents of his own from which to draw on to raise his children, life with Oliver is full of fun and adventure one minute but marked with poverty and abandonment the next.  It is a story that will give the reader a deeper understanding of what life was like in the 1930's - a social history if you will.  But as with all children, "boys will be boys" even in the hardest of times.

     PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES can be read by itself - no need to have read my first 2 books in order to figure out what's going on in the story.

Yaya:     Donna, were Oliver's experiences what ignited your desire to write?  Or, did you already aspire to be an author and realized your grampa's life was a story just waiting to be told?

Donna:     I have enjoyed writing since I was a young teenager.  I started first with poetry and songwriting.  I had one teacher who, although she questioned what I had written as my own work, nevertheless encouraged me in my writing.  These particular stories were handed to me in oral history form after my father, with great foresight, decided to sit Oliver (his dad) down with a tape recorder and record everything that Oliver could remember from his childhood.  As soon as I heard the tapes, I knew they would make a great book.  Most everyone I ask has never heard about the Orphan Trains and are very surprised that this happened in the United States.  I am still amazed that an event which lasted 75 years (1854-1929) and relocated over 250,000 children from East coast cities to every state in the nation, somehow has managed to escape our collective consciousness.

Yaya:     Would you mind sharing that moment when you decided to write about your grampa' Oliver?

Donna:     I put the tapes aside, since at the time my children were quite young.  Carlo was 10, James was five and Estella was a newborn.  James was born with multiple disabilities and spent most of his first five years in and out of the hospital and he never slept through the night so I did not have the energy or time to work on the book at that time.  The idea never left me though, and when Estella was ten, the time was right.  James was healthier and Estella was an avid reader.  I began writing the story at the 5th grade level and she would read each chapter when it was finished and give me her thoughts.

 Yaya:    You mentioned that you had plenty of opportunity to get to know him.  What do you remember most about your grampa'?

 Donna:    Mostly I remember his adventurous spirit.  He always was ready for the next thing and never acted like an old man.  I remember water skiiing with him on the Delaware river in the Pocono mountains of PA where he lived.  He was in his late 60's at the time and he would ski just like the rest of us.  He traveled a lot and we would sometimes go with him on road trips.  We went to see the Mammoth Caves in KY and traveled to Colorado where we drove to the top of Pike's Peak.

Yaya:     I'd love it if you'd share some of your favorite moments with your grampa'.

Donna:     The trips we shared were wonderful memories.  Some other little quirky things I remember were once when we were in a campground...I think I was around 15 years old...I was eyeing a cute boy in the next campsite over.  He saw what I was up to and said to me, "Go and talk to him.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained."  It was a motto that he lived his life by.  His house in Stroudsburg, PA - which he built himself with no "plans" was furnished with old burgundy and blue velvet furniture.  He wasn't much of a housekeeper and we used to love to slap our hands on the arms of the furniture and watch the dust billow up.  He had steer horns above his fireplace (my son Carlo who is now 26 and has his own house is the proud owner of the steer horns now) and pictures of us grandchildren on the wall.  He used to keep a clear candy dish with a lid full of pink mints which he called "Granddad's pink pills for pale people" and we could always have as many as we wanted.  My father has continued the tradition and has the same candy jar and mints on his living room table for his own 13 grandchildren.

Yaya:     When you started writing about Oliver, did you imagine it would take more than one book to tell his story?

Donna:     No I had no idea.  When the first book was published and people began to read and respond to it, they always asked, "What happened to Edward?  Where did he go?  Does Oliver find him?"  These were questions that were left unanswered at the end of FLY LITTLE BIRD, FLY!  I left it that way intentionally, leaving it up to the reader to imagine as they would.  Since so many sad things happened in the first book I wanted to end on a hopeful, upbeat note.  But with all the questions, and since I knew what happened next (it was all on the tapes), I decided to write the second book to answer the reader's questions.

Yaya:     When I began reading the first book, I was curious about the title.  Imagine my shock when you shared the scene from Oliver's childhood that inspired the title.  Was this something that you knew from the start would be the name of your book?

Donna:     Oh no.  Of the three books, the only book that kept it's "working title" was BEYOND THE ORPHAN TRAIN.  The working title for FLY LITTLE BIRD, FLY! was "Riding the Rails" and the working title for PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES was "Oliver's Children".

Yaya:     Your family has had some very challenging encounters.  I've been curious if your grampa's experiences have given you any interest in genealogy?

Donna:     Yes, my father and I both became interested in genealogy in the mid 80's.  We were able to trace our roots on Oliver's side back to Sweden and Ireland.  We could never find Oliver's father on a ship's manifest though.  Amazingly, long after the first two books were published, a reader and genealogist from Arizona contacted me through AUTHORSDEN to let me know how much she enjoyed the stories.  She asked if there was any place in my research where I had hit a brick wall and I thought right away about Oliver's dad.  Within fifteen minutes - I'm not kidding - she emailed me a copy of the ship's manifest with Otto Nordmark's name listed.  As it turned out, we were looking at ships from the wrong port in Sweden.

     Oliver himself traveled to Sweden in his retirement to see what he could find out.  He had no real plan, just said he would talk to people along the way.  He enjoyed the trip, traveling to a town in Sweden called NORDMARK and learning about how records were kept, but he never found any additional information about his father or grandfather.

Yaya:     You dedicated your first book to your father, Benjamin Nordmark, thanking him for listening and sharing Oliver's childhood stories with you.  Do you mind describing your father's first reaction to the news that FLY LITTLE BIRD, FLY! had been accepted for publication?

Donna:     I didn't tell him until I had a book in hand - just in time to give to him for his 75th birthday.  He was overcome.  That was six years ago and his original copy of FLY LITTLE BIRD, FLY! still sits, dog-eared from reading, on the table next to his easy chair.

Yaya:     You also thanked your sister, Allison Bricker, and your daughter, Estella Aviles, for their help in seeing that book through to publication.  Can you share a little bit of that with us?

Donna:     My sister and my daughter were the only ones who knew that I was writing the first book.  Estella helped with reading and giving me her input, and Allison helped with encouraging words and a teacher's insight.  She is an elementary music teacher.

Yaya:     Donna, do any of your children aspire to follow in your footsteps and write?

Donna:     Carlo is a high school history teacher at an inner city school in Wilmington Delaware and enjoys writing short stories.  Estella is a junior at Wilmington Christian School here in Hockessin and is an honors student in English and History.  She is an excellent writer but does not seem to aspire to a career in the field.  At this point she would like to double major in college - computer programming and music (she's a beautiful piano player.)

Yaya:     And finally, will we get to learn more about Oliver and his children in future books?

Donna:     Absolutely!  His children have all had very colorful lives of their own.  Four of his six children are still living and all are enjoying the success of the books, checking with me periodically to see, "What's new with the books?"

Yaya:     We will be doing two more interviews to learn more about the next two books.  I'm really looking forward to being able to visit with you further.  Thank you for taking the time to be with us.

Donna:     Thank YOU Joany.  I've so enjoyed talking with and getting to know you as well! I truly hope that your readers have enjoyed learning a little more about my books. "See" you in the next interview!
Yaya:     To my readers, I hope you've enjoyed learning about Oliver and his family as much as I have.  As I said, there will be at least two more visits with Donna, where she continues in her narrative about her grampa'.  Its remarkable to me that seventy-five years of American history could have become almost invisible to the bulk of the population.  Hopefully, having had a chance to get to know Donna, you will seek to learn more about her family, as well as the more than two hundred and fifty thousand children and families whose lives were changed by a small group of caring people.
     Never let it be said that one person cannot make a change.  After all, look how many lives the Reverend, Charles Loring Brace and Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon affected for change.  If you have questions for Donna, please post them in your comments and I will be sure to include them when Donna returns to enlighten us further about her second and third books, BEYOND THE ORPHAN TRAIN and  PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES, A TRUE STORY FROM THE GREAT DEPRESSION.
     In the near future and from time to time, I will also be posting some very fun word games that center around Donna's different books and information about Orphan Trains, in general.  Now, may I just say that if there's someone you love, hold that person close to your heart.  And 'til the next time, keep a hug on.


Beverly Stowe McClure said...

A wonderful interview, Yaya. Thanks.

Donna, I'm so happy to hear about your books and your grandfather's story. The Orphan Trains are dear to my heart. My mother road the train from Brooklyn to Texas in 1922. Unfortunately, we had never heard of this movement until it was too late to talk with her. I wrote her story, much of it from my imagination, and it is now under contract. I've given talks about the Orphan Trains to the Retired Teachers Convention, and local clubs. Will take a look at your books. Thank you.


Kate said...

Wow! The books sound awesome! I can't wait to read them. How encouraging it must be to see their success and know there's a demand for more! Very inspiring! Yaya, thanks for the interview! Kate (

Mikki said...

Wonderful interview, Yaya. I'm looking forward to reading Donna's books.

I have a non-fiction book started about the Orphan Trains. I started it when I was doing the research on my historical novel. Now I really want to finish it!


Donna M. McDine said...

Thank you for hosting Donna today. What a fascinating history her family has! How wonderful the finished book was a surprise.

Question for Donna: Did you find it difficult to keep true to the story since the people are relatives of yours?

Have a wonderful evening and best wishes to you both!


Donna said...

For Donna M. McDine.... The first two books are based on over four hours of tape recordings that my father made of Oliver talking about his childhood so I had tons of accurate information to write these narrative non-fiction books from. Of course I backed up the things he said with research and found that he had an amazing ability to recall even the smallest of facts. So, in answer to your question, no it was not difficult to keep true to the story. The only parts of the book that are "fictionalized" are the small pieces that Oliver didn't recall. For example....the name of the matron when he lived in the Boys Cottages of the Children's Village Orphanage on Long Island.

My third book, PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES, was a little tougher since four of the people I was writing about are still living. So, after recording their oral histories and writing the book, I took the manuscript to each of them to read to make sure they were happy with the final product. Minor changes were made at that point....for example the name of the Children's Aid Worker that played such a prominent part in the children's lives was named Mrs. Martin originally. Margaret Nordmark - Oliver's youngest daughter - was quick to point out to me that, "Oh no, she wasn't married." For whatever reason, it was important to her, so I went through and changed all the "Mrs." to "Miss". And of course, I needed to write the stories of their childhood in a way that honored their memories of the events and I think I was able to accomplish that.

Thanks for your question and well wishes!!

Donna Aviles

Not The Rockefellers said...

Thank you Yaya for the invitation and Thank you Donna!

I loved your memories of your Grampa's house..funny how we have the same memories.I used to dust my Grampa's place the same way :) and he use to keep spearmint gumdrop leaves in a dish.

Thank you

Judith Richards Shubert said...

How wonderful! I enjoyed so much the interview and getting to know Donna and anticipate reading her books. I was wondering while reading the interview about how you dealt with family members still living. The explanation in your answer to Donna M. answered my curiosity. You handled it in a caring, loving, and diplomatic manner.

I can't wait to read the next interview and meet more of Donna's famly, but really look forward to reading her books. Thanks, Yaya!

Angelia Almos said...

Wow, very interesting stuff. Thanks Donna and Yaya.

Anne - Fiona and Twig said...

That's a fascinating interview, and really has me wanting to seek out Donna's books!

Yaya, I know I'm not supposed to play faves, but I really hope you win my giveaway! Your comment on my blog touched me. :-)

Big hugs,

Yaya' s Changing World said...

Thank you all so very much for your comments. Thank YOU, Donna, for such interesting responses to my questions. I have now finished reading all of the books. In fact, my good hubby-buddy had me read them to him. All of them. And he is as anxious as I am for the next book.

I was thrilled to realize that some of you are descendents of Orphan Train Riders and even happier to learn that more books are being written. I know it will help to spread the word about this little-know period in American history.

Be sure to watch for the next visit from Donna. She will be returning to share even more! This has been such an educational and enjoyable experience. I can hardly wait 'til the next visit. ::Anne, I hope I win, too::

Thank you, Donna, and thank you all.

Hugs and hugs,

My name is PJ. said...

(I've been away for five days)

Hi Joany, This interview was interesting and the fact that you gave it was so cool!

You did a great job!!

Nisa said...

Wow! These books sound fantastic and the interview was wonderful. Thank you both for taking the time to do this!

Evelyn said...

A fascinating interview! Thank you, Joany, for inviting me, and thank you, Donna, for sharing such interesting information. Your books sound wonderful.

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