Orphan Trail

Mail-Order Kid finally sent home

Author Marilyn June Coffey says she tears up every time she reads this part of Teresa Martin’s story: “As she slipped her wide foot into her shoe, she felt like Cinderella donning the glass slipper. Up from ashes. She could hardly breathe. After all those school children’s taunts, after the years living with the hurtful Biekers, the years scrubbing floors, the lonely fight to be educated, after a lifetime of being mail-order orphan, now, at last, in her seventies, blood relatives had claimed her. She blinked back tears.” It’s the moment Martin meets her blood relatives after years of hardship; being one of the hundreds of thousands of orphans shipped from New York City to unknown lands and family in mid-America. For Martin, it was Hays, Kansas in 1910, at age three. “She had so much fear, such low self-esteem, she thought they couldn’t be her family,” says Coffey, “This was the most powerful moment — when she accepted being part of a family, and miraculously, they accepted her.” Omaha resident Coffey wrote her third novel, 2010’s Mail-Order Kid, after four years of weekly interviews and study with Martin and additional years of research on the Orphan-Train Movement. Before meeting Martin, Coffey spent five years touring Nebraska as a speaker with the Nebraska Humanities Council performing as various orphan train riders she’d researched — from inspirational stories of children placed in loving homes, to heart-wrenching stories of abuse and forced separation. According to Coffey’s research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Library, the Orphan Train Movement involved 100,000-500,000 children relocated from New York City orphanages by rail to Nebraska and every other state from 1854 to 1929. Unlike most of the written stories of the orphan experiences which stop at the relocation without exploring the life-altering affects, Coffey’s Mail-Order Kid tells Martin’s story from her memories in the orphanage, throughout her childhood with an abusive adoptive family, her marriages, children and library career, to her death in 2001. “Mail-Order Kid is a story of transformation,” writes Coffey in the book’s preface, “This biography depicts how the abuse Teresa experienced as a child weakened her self-esteem. It shows how she at first accepted this self-deprecation and then fought it until, through her efforts and the love of others, she no longer needed to apologize for having ridden an orphan train.” Coffey didn’t read about Martin’s story in the library, however. Their friendship started with a hand-written note by Martin mailed to Coffey in the midst of her speaking-traveling days, in 1992, while Coffey was teaching at Fort Hays State University, and her activities were publicized in The Hays Daily News. Martin wrote, “How can you lecture on orphan trains when you’ve never heard my story?” Coffey agreed. Although she’d been performing as an orphan train rider, she had never actually met one. Coffey planned on a 20-minute acquaintance, but upon meeting the “warm and thoughtful” Martin and her closet stacked with documents from her life, the project blossomed into one of inspiration and life-learning which became Mail-Order Kid. Martin had her hand in each chapter through her death, which Coffey wrote from conversations and notes taken herself. Martin was thrilled with the result, as stated in the book’s preface, “she beamed, ‘It makes my life alive again!’” Of the writing process for the book, Coffey writes, “I learned from Teresa the value of genuine humility. In her lack of pretension, she showed me the joy of connecting with other people by not putting herself above them — or below them.” Likewise, Coffey hopes the story gives the readers such optimism as well. Martin’s story seems a far cry from Coffey’s first novel, 1973’s Marcella, the first novel in English to use female autoeroticism as a main theme, though Coffey relates them as stories about young women struggling with “more than they could handle.” Her second novel, Great Plains Patchwork (1989), featuring short-story memoirs of her family, brought rave reviews from national media. Coffey is currently at work on her fourth novel, Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers, an historical book about Harlan County, Nebraska. She’s also publishing a book of poetry, Pricksongs, featuring her Pushcart Prize-winning poem by the same name — which she’ll read from at this March’s Lit Undressed performance at RNG Gallery. (Full Disclosure: I produce this event.) She lives and works in Omaha with her longtime partner Jack Loscutoff, a science fiction writer. Coffey will read from Mail-Order Kid (2010, Out West Press) Jan. 23, 1 p.m. at The Bookworm, 8702 Pacific St. Visit marilyncoffey.net.

posted at 08:43 pm
on Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

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