In Chicago 1881, an orphan train is scheduled to travel west in a cross-country attempt to find new guardians. Among the children selected is Rodzina Brodski, a twelve year-old girl who is still recovering from her parents’ sudden deaths and her recent experiences on the streets. Rodzina’s reluctance to befriend any of the other orphans is equaled by her own loneliness and her despair. However, poverty and harsh treatment are common trials to all the children, and this knowledge inadvertently brings them closer together. Moreover, they all desire the same outcome—to be adopted by a loving, humane, and unselfish family.
The Polish word for “family” is “rodzina,” and the author aptly names her heroine after the character’s strongest inner longing. Karen Cushman vividly describes the hardships and realities of Rodzina’s life, and she also realistically expresses the feelings of a young girl who only wants to be loved. Polish culture and cuisine are details of Rodzina’s upbringing warmly emphasized by the author, putting Poland in the spotlight throughout the novel. Child slave labor and even incest are revealed to be motives behind adoptions during Rodzina’s time, problems which probably continue today.
Prejudice is not only directed towards the orphans in the story but also towards immigrants, Native Americans, and women. When Rodzina proudly adheres to her Polish heritage, she becomes the victim of taunts and verbal abuse. Sexism is apparent in the storyline through the treatment of the female doctor, a character whose personal quest for respect and love for medicine eventually earns Rodzina’s admiration. The author will gain sympathy from the reader for these unwanted children whose only crime was that they were born. A modern Jane Eyre for children and for adults, Rodzina is a trek from Illinois to California that challenges society’s idea of a family and decries humanity’s cruelty to the unfortunate.
Original review: Karen Cushman’s ‘Rodzina’ defines family and highlights Poland, Examiner.com