What would it feel like to be 15 years old, to lose your parents in a terrible accident and, with no family other than a younger sister, to find yourself on a train platform not knowing where you are going or who will take you in? It was pondering this question that led local author Marilyn Campbell to write “Trains to Concordia,” her new young adult novel. Campbell’s book launch is on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at Napa Bookmine, 964 Pearl St., Napa.
Campbell saw a television program about the orphan trains that carried large numbers of children from large cities in the east to new homes in the Midwest from 1854 to 1929. It inspired her to write a short story and then her characters called out for more. Her research included reading about the orphan train museum in Concordia, Kansas, and after immersing herself in transcripts of oral histories of those who had been through the experience, Campbell started her novel.
She decided to tell the tale from the perspective of a teenage boy, Charley, going through the normal teen struggle to forge an identity and find his place in the world. In addition to suffering the hardships of life with strangers and demanding physical labor, Charley is also responsible for his younger sister Jennie.
On the orphan train, Charley and Jennie meet Christina, a street-wise 16-year-old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As the train makes its stops and town leaders invite families from their lists to choose children, the kids know that if no family has selected them by the end of the line in Concordia, they will have to travel all the way back to the orphanage in Pennsylvania. At the last stop, a farmer who wants a strong boy to work his farm chooses Charley, but Charley won’t go without his sister.
While they’re on the farm, the children deal with hard work, a cruel guardian, and a harsh environment: winter blizzards, dust storms, and fire. In addition, they must cope with the demands of the family, illness, and death. These challenges may be eye-opening to today’s young readers.
Campbell relates strongly to Charley’s sense of responsibility toward his sister, which forces him to delay pursuing his own needs. The reader might feel his anguish when Jennie escapes temporarily to a life of refinement while her brother toils away on the farm where they have been sent.
Campbell enjoyed developing the character of Christina, as a model of a liberated female. Christina eventually learns to trust her new friends. Young readers will enjoy the spark of romance as Christina and Charley find there may be more between them than friendship.
Near the end of the novel, Charlie ponders what to do after his 18th birthday:
“Charley tossed and turned all night. … He kept hearing train whistles in his head like a bad song. The trains of Concordia had influenced events in his young life in many ways; if it hadn’t been for the train, Charley wouldn’t be stuck here in Concordia. If it hadn’t been for the train, Jennie wouldn’t have gone to New York and boarded a ship for Europe where her heart had hardened against him. … But, the fact was that there were trains to Concordia just as there were trains from the town that might take Christina anywhere, and that could take him too if only he had the nerve to make a decision.”
Campbell, who grew up in Stockton, always had an interest in writing. She wrote a gossip column for her junior high paper and served as editor of the student paper at Franklin High School. As a student she also published articles in the Stockton Record and wrote material for an advertising agency. She eventually became a social worker, married and raised a family. She moved to Napa in 1975 and began seriously writing again about 15 years ago.
Campbell’s background gave her insight into the plight of her characters. She admired her mother-in-law, whose childhood as an orphan included time in an institution and with a stern aunt on a dirt farm in Montana. As a social worker, Campbell met many elderly clients who talked about growing up in difficult family circumstances that left deep scars, especially if they were separated from family at a young age or physically abused. This background gives authenticity to Charley and Jennie’s tale. Arlene Miller, author and editor, says, “Preteens, teens, and adults alike can relate to the experiences these children go through.”
When asked if she would write a sequel, Campbell said, “Several people have suggested I write one and I can certainly imagine a future for my characters as they enter adulthood.” Campbell also writes poems and short stories, but especially likes spinning long narratives and the experience of, in her words, “immersing myself in the alternate universe I have created.”
“Trains to Concordia” is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and kindle formats. It is also at Copperfield’s in Napa and Calistoga and at Napa Bookmine. Campbell has planned two events for readers. At the Sept. 29 book launch, 7 p.m. at Napa Bookmine, she’ll give a brief history of the period, read some passages, and sign books. There will be refreshments. She’ll be at Copperfield’s in Napa on Oct. 24 from 2-4 p.m. and in Calistoga on Nov. 14 from 1:30-3:30 p.m. to meet readers and sign books. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.