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  • Written by Karen Cushman
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  • Rodzina
  • Written by Karen Cushman
    Read by Becky Ann Baker
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Read by Becky Ann Baker
On Sale: April 22, 2003
ISBN: 978-0-8072-1578-4
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In 1881, 12-year-old Rodzina Clara Jadwiga Anastazya Brodski wishes she didn’t have to board the orphan train in Chicago. But she has no home, no family, and no choice. Rodzina doesn’t believe the orphans are on their way out West to be adopted by good families. She’s sure they will become slaves to strangers. Anyway, who would ever adopt a large, tough, stubborn girl of Polish origin? As the train heads west, all Rodzina has is a small suitcase and her family memories from the past. Will Rodzina ever step off the train to find the family that deep in her heart she’s searching for?


Chicago, 1881

On a cold Monday morning in March, when a weak, pale sun struggled to shine and ice glistened in the cracks in the wooden street, a company of some twenty-two orphan children with stiff new clothes and little cardboard suitcases boarded a special railway car at the station near the Chicago River. I know, because I was one of them.
The station was noisier and more confused than Halsted Street on market day. Travelers carrying featherbeds and bundles wrapped in blue gingham cloth shoved me aside in their hurry to get here or there. A man in a bright red jacket bumped into me and apologized in a language I did not know. At least I assumed it was an apology, because of all the bowing and tipping of his hat, so I said, "It's all right, mister, but I'd say you should know a little English if you expect to get wherever you're going." He tipped his hat again.
One woman, burdened with children, blankets, a tin kettle, and a three-legged stove, finally put that stove right down on the platform, sat herself atop it, and began to cry. I knew how she felt. I myself was a mite worried--not scared, being twelve and no baby like Evelyn or Gertie to be afraid of every little thing, but worried, yes. It was all so loud and disorderly and unfamiliar.
I forced my way through the crowd and grabbed on to a belt in front of me. The boy it belonged to said, "Hang on tight, Rodzina, afore we're swept into the lake like sewage." It was Spud, whom I knew from the Little Wanderers' Refuge. He and Chester, Gertie, Horton, Rose and Pearl Lubnitz, the baby Evelyn, and I--we had been there together. The others were from the Infant Hospital and the Orphan Asylum near Hyde Park. Orphans, all of us, carrying all we owned in our two hands, pushing and shoving like everyone else.
A lady, standing straight and tall in a black suit and stiff white shirtwaist, put her hands up to her mouth and shouted, but I could not hear much over the din. I finally gathered that she was from the Orphan Asylum and was calling us all together. Letting go of Spud's belt, I stretched myself even taller so I could get a better look at her over that expanse of heads. She was pale and thin, her mouth ill-humored, and her gray eyes as cold and sharp as the wire rims of her spectacles. I should have known they would not send someone kind and good-natured to accompany a carload of orphans.
Roaring and cursing, a short, barrel-shaped man togged out in a checked jacket and yellow shoes pushed his way through the crowd. "You! Orphans!" he shouted, the cigar in the corner of his mouth waving and waggling with his words. "Pipe down! I am Mr. Szprot, the placing-out agent for the Association of Aid Societies. That means I am the boss and you do what I tell you. You are, you know, none of you, too young to go to Hell. Or to jail. So shut your mugs and line up." After my time on the street I was used to being threatened with Hell, so it didn't bother me much, but still I shut my mug. There was silence from the other orphans too, and we walked noiselessly to the train.
Trains had hooted and rumbled behind our house on Honore Street, but I had never seen a locomotive up so close, looming like the fearful dragon of Wawel Hill in the story Auntie Manya used to tell, its smokestack belching sparks, and a line of cars trailing behind like a tail of wood and iron. If I had been younger or smaller, even I might have been scared.
Getting on this train had not been my idea. I wanted to go home. But I had no home anymore, except the Little Wanderers' Refuge, and they had sent me away to be sold as a slave. I knew that because a kid on the street, Melvin, had told me. "That orphanage ships kids on trains to the west," he said. "In freight cars. Don't feed 'em or nothin'. Sells 'em to families that want slaves." He shook his head. "Orphans never come to no good end." I found that easy to believe, so I believed every word.
No, I surely did not want to get on the train, but the crowd of orphans shoved me onward. The long black wool stockings they'd given me at the orphan home itched something fierce, and pausing midway up the iron steps, I bent down to scratch my knees. Three orphans knocked right into me.
"You, Polish girl," said Mr. Szprot, his voice even louder than his jacket, "try not to be so clumsy."
A big boy behind me snickered. "Clumsy Polish girl," he said. "Ugly cabbage eater." Accidentally on purpose I swung my suitcase and cracked him on the knee. I knew he wouldn't try to get even with Mr. Szprot so close.
Once up the steps, I looked back. This was the last I'd ever see of Chicago, this view of soot and ice and metal tracks. On such a cold, gray, blustery morning, it looked like a dead place, but at least it was familiar. Chicago had always meant Mama and Papa and the boys. Now Mama and Papa and the boys were gone, home was gone, and soon Chicago would be gone. I felt like I was jumping out a seventh-story window, not at all sure someone was down below to catch me. I scratched my knees again and, holding tight to my suitcase, went in.
Karen Cushman

About Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman - Rodzina
Karen Cushman’s first book, Catherine, Called Birdy, was a Newbery Honor Winner and her second, The Midwife’s Apprentice, was awarded the Newbery Medal.


“It is 1881, and twelve-year-old Rodzina Clara Jadwiga Anastazya Brodski finds herself on an orphan train bound from Chicago to the west where, she is sure, she will be sold into slavery. . . . Rodzina’s musings and observations provide poignancy, humor, and a keen sense of the human and topographical landscape.”—School Library Journal, Starred

“A natural for American history or social studies classes, this is especially interesting as a women’s history title, with Rodzina portrayed as an unromantic protagonist, big, angry, tough. . . . Cushman talks about the history in a lengthy final note, and she includes a bibliography of other orphan books.”—Booklist, Starred

Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


Twelve-year-old Rodzina Brodski begins a long
journey aboard the orphan train that takes her
from the streets of Chicago to an unlikely and
surprising new home in San Francisco in 1881.

Rodzina Brodski is only 12 years old when she is
swept off the streets of Chicago and put on the
orphan train that is headed west. Like all of the
street orphans, Rodzina is promised a nice family,
but she isn’t convinced that anyone will want a
homely Polish girl. The train has barely begun
its journey when Miss Doctor, the woman
accompanying the orphans, places Rodzina in
charge of the younger children. She resents this
responsibility, but manages to get through the
journey by holding on to the memories of her
family. Rodzina is placed in a terrifying situation
with a farm family near Cheyenne, and narrowly
escapes a future of doom. Her courage and spunk
lead her to the life she has wished for all along—
independence and love from someone who might
learn to care for her.


Karen Cushman was born in Chicago,
Illinois, and currently lives on Vashon
Island, in Puget Sound. She has always
been interested in history, and her desire
to know what life was like for ordinary
people in other times led her to write
Matilda Bone; Catherine, Called Birdy, a
Newbery Honor winner; and The Midwife’s
winner of the Newbery Medal.
Rodzina is her fifth book.


Ask students to do
their own research
and read about the
Orphan Train
Movement. Divide
the class into small
groups and ask them
to debate why the
orphan train was
considered a good
thing by some
and controversial
by others. Ask
them to consider
these points as they
read Rodzina.


Abandonment—There are children on the orphan train who aren’t orphans.
Rodzina thinks about these children, and says, “No matter how poor we were
or what trouble there was, I never felt that my mama and papa didn’t want
me.” (p. 38) How is not being wanted by one’s parents a type of abandonment?
At what point in the novel does Rodzina feel abandoned by Miss Doctor? Ask
students to describe Miss Doctor’s feelings of abandonment.

Adoption—Discuss why Miss Doctor wants Rodzina to know that Edgar Allan
Poe and Leo Tolstoy were orphans. At what point in the novel does Rodzina
“adopt” Miss Doctor? Think about the historical context of the novel, and
discuss why it is unlikely that Miss Doctor legally adopted Rodzina. Contrast
Rodzina’s fate with that of the children on the orphan train.

Survival—Many of the orphans have survived on the streets of Chicago before
they begin their journey west on the orphan train. Have students explain their
survival skills. How do these skills serve them on the train? How does Joe use
disguise as a means of survival? Ask students why they think some of the
children prefer the streets to living with a family in the west?

Family—Have students describe Rodzina’s family. How does she hold on to
special memories of them? Discuss the motive of most of the families that take
the orphans. Why does Mr. Clench want Rodzina? How does Mrs. Clench
protect Rodzina from her husband? How are Lacey, Joe, and Sammy like a
family to Rodzina? What makes Miss Doctor change her mind about sending
Rodzina to the Boys’ and Girls’ Training School near San Francisco? How do
Rodzina and Miss Doctor need each other?

Fear—Ask students to discuss why Rodzina feels that it’s important not to
reveal one’s fear. What is Rodzina’s greatest fear? How does she help the younger
children deal with their fears? At what point in the novel is the reader most
frightened for Rodzina? How does Rodzina escape this frightening situation?

Freedom—Rodzina’s family left Poland because her papa believed that “poor
freedom was better than rich slavery.” (p. 41) Ask students to think about the
fate of the children on the orphan train. Discuss whether Mr. Brodski would
consider this a type of slavery. How does Miss Doctor use the orphan train to
gain freedom for herself?

Prejudice/Bigotry—Mr. Szprot, the placing out agent, curses and screams
at the orphans. He sometimes appears especially cruel to Rodzina. Discuss
how he displays prejudice and bigotry when he addresses her as “Polish Girl.”
Ask students to find incidents throughout the novel where Rodzina suffers
from prejudices against her heritage. How is Miss Doctor a victim of prejudice
and bigotry?


Language Arts—The orphan train stops in
Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the children are fed and
entertained by local citizens. The winners of the
school spelling bee spell the following words for the
orphans: forlorn, impoverished, destitute, uncertain,
and outcast. How do these words relate to the
orphans? As a class, define these items, then instruct
students to use these spelling words and write a
brief article for the Cheyenne newspaper about
the orphans.
The children travel through little towns with names
like Dead Mule Junction, Wild Horse Ridge, Lick
Skillet, Buck Snort, and Rotten Luck. Ask students
to pick one of these names and write a legend about
how the town got its name.

Social Studies—Charles Loring Brace, the founder
of the Children’s Aid Society, was recognized for his
radical and progressive ideas about services to poor
and orphaned children. Ask students to research and
read about Mr. Brace’s ideas. Then ask them to write
an editorial either supporting or disputing his ideas
for a New York newspaper.
Ask students to read the Author’s Note at the end of
the novel. Then have them identify a bit of
information (e.g., the English boys that were sent in
1618 to work on plantations in Richmond, Virginia)
to do further research. Ask them to use their
research and write a short paper that connects this
information to the development of the current foster
care system in the United States.

Health—Myrna Clench suffers from “galloping
consumption,” and Rodzina’s mama died of the
“putrid fever.” Ask students to research the causes
and treatments of these diseases. Find out what
other diseases plagued people in the late 1800s.
Make a poster informing people of symptoms and
treatments of these diseases that a local doctor
might post to help prevention of these illnesses.

Math—Ask students to record all the towns on the
orphan train route, beginning with the first stop in
Grand Island, Nebraska. Use a map of the United
States and determine the route of the train. Then
have students use Map Quest (www.mapquest.com)
and calculate the distance Rodzina and Miss Doctor
traveled from Chicago to San Francisco.

Art—Rodzina and Miss Doctor become a family.
Have students make cards that Rodzina and Miss
Doctor might give to one another on their birthdays
in the first year they are together.
Many of the people in the
west who adopted children
from the orphan train
are farmers who live
far away from towns.
Discuss how they get
the message about
the orphan train.
Then make a flyer or
poster to hang in the
train stations along the
route that advertises the
orphan train.


Encourage students to jot down unfamiliar words
and try to define them taking clues from the
context of the novel. Such words may include:
cahoots (p. 35), emigrants (p. 37), contentment
(p. 41), panhandling (p. 55), vice (p. 56), defect
(p. 68), frigid (p. 135), turrets (p. 142),
persevered (p. 177), and hydrophobia (p. 178).


Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth

“Rodzina’s musings and observations provide
poignancy, humor, and a keen sense of the
human and topographical landscape.”
—Starred, School Library Journal

“A natural for American history or social
studies classes, this is especially interesting as a
woman’s history title.”—Starred, Booklist


The Children’s Aid Society
A description of the history of the Children’s Aid
Society and the Orphan Train Movement.

The Orphan Train Children
Provides a partial list of New York area institutions
that the orphan train children came from.


Belle Prater’s Boy
Ruth White
Adopted and Orphaned Children • Family
Grades 5–7 / 0-440-41372-9
Dell Yearling

Gib Rides Home
Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Abandonment • Family
Grades 5–7 / 0-440-41257-9
Delacorte Press

Patricia MacLachlan
Abandonment • Family
Grades 5–7 / 0-440-40809-1
Dell Yearling

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