In 1988 my father, Ben Nordmark Sr., decided to sit his father down and record the many stories of Oliver Nordmark's unique and long life. Oliver was born in 1898, the second child of Otto and Lizzie Nordmark, in New York City. In 1906, as Oliver recalls, he was placed on one of America's Orphan Trains to the midwest in search of a home. His understanding was that his parents had died. Oliver spoke for hours on the tape recordings giving wonderful descriptions of the people and events that shaped his life. He had an excellent memory for all the details - even recalling that his first real job paid "$4.00 a day plus board" harvesting wheat in Goodland, KS.
For Christmas that year, my father gave each of his five children a copy of the tape recordings so that we would have our grandfather's history to hold onto. He never imagined that anything more would come of the tapes. When I listened to the tapes, my immediate reaction was "wow, that would make a great book." At the time, however, my second child, James, had just been born. James was diagnosed before his first birthday with Coffin Lowry Syndrome, a form of mental retardation. He was frequently ill for unexplained reasons, with 14 hospitalizations in one year alone. Needless to say, I was not thinking of writing that book! As James' health stabalized, our daughter Estella was born in 1993 joining her brothers Carlo, age 10 and James who was nearly 5. Life got very busy and again, thoughts of writing that book got put on hold. When Estella was ten years old, I got to thinking about those tapes again. My father was getting close to his 75th birthday and Estella's absolute favorite activity was reading. I had a great idea......
Fly Little Bird, Fly! was written in 2003-04 as a "secret project". Written at the 5th-7th grade level, each completed chapter was handed over to Estella to read and critique. Our goal was to have the story finished and published as a surprise birthday present for Grandpop. As I submitted query letters and sample chapters to agents and publishers, I soon began to realize that publishing the story was going to take a long time and in fact may not happen at all. With my self-imposed deadline, I looked towards self publishing the book. Wasteland Press has been a great company to work with and the book was finished in time for our surprise!
The book became available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers. Review copies were sent to newspapers in the towns where Oliver had lived and several papers reviewed the book favorably. People started to order the book - that was never part of the original plan - and respond with emails and letters telling me how much they enjoyed the story. Many expressed interest in knowing "what became of Edward?" (Edward was Oliver's younger brother who rode the train with him. The two became separated and the book ends on a hopeful note as Oliver decides to hop a freight train in search of his brother and a life of his own). Since I knew the rest of the story - it was all on the tapes - I decided to write a companion story that would answer all the reader's questions such as , "Where does Oliver go? How will he earn a living? What kind of people will he meet along the way? Will he be able to find Edward?"
Beyond The Orphan Train was published at year's end, 2004. This book chronicles Oliver's story from age 15 through his marriage at age 20 to Estella May Rarick who was just 2 months shy of her 16th birthday. This book is adventure packed with stories of Oliver building a sod house, learning to harvest wheat, hunting crows for their bounty of 5 cents a head, waking to the horror of rats nibbling on his toes, and more! Both books started to find their way into schools and I began to receive invitations to speak to 5th graders about the Orphan Train Movement in general, and my books in particular.
Many doors have opened, and continue to open, since that time. We could never have imagined many of the things that have happened since the publishing of Fly Little Bird, Fly! Those of us who know the intimate details of everything that has transpired, feel certain that something greater than ourselves is moving this story forward. Perhaps the 200,000+ children who rode the trains but were told not to speak of it, are finally going to reclaim their place in America's history books. Very few people that I encounter have ever even heard of the Orphan Trains - that needs to change.
---Donna Nordmark Aviles