Where Children Run

2017 Readers Favourite Gold Medalist – True Stories

Twins David and Dennis Pischke’s lives change forever when heir father dies, and a Polish immigrant damaged by the war arrives at their farm near the isolated town of Moosehorn, Manitoba. Boleslaw Domko quickly works his way into their lives and their mother’s bed.

Where Children Run opens with one of their earliest memories—the day Domko throws their infant stepsister against the wall. In this first-hand account, the Twins recall years of neglect, starvation, and enslavement; horrific beatings and candlelit nights spent in the nearby St. Thomas Lutheran Church.  Neighbors intervene, but their efforts provide only temporary relief as the children’s mother—also living in fear—refuses to press charges.

The brothers vow that if they survive, they will someday expose their tormentor and members of their mother’s religious organization who turned a blind-eye to their suffering. This is their story—told with stark honesty and in heart-wrenching detail.

First released in 1996, Where Children Run is a timeless, unforgettable story of survival; and a powerful testament to the strength and adaptability of the human spirit.

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I still remember the intense feeling I had driving home late at night after the first time I interviewed David and Dennis Pischke. I knew that I’d stumbled upon an incredible story but at the time, all I could think about was how to structure it as a feature and if the newspaper editor I worked for would allow me the space I’d need to tell it. Roger Newman loved the story and ran it in two parts. Peter Warren from CJOB Radio in Winnipeg read the Interlake Spectator regularly and called to ask if the Pischkes might want to be on his show. I warned him that the twins could be a little hard to understand, especially when they were excited, but Peter said he’d take that risk.

On April 27, 1995, David and Dennis were so well-received by the Action Line listening audience that host Peter Warren canceled the late morning guests and the twins were on the air all morning. During a commercial break before the final wrap-up, David told Peter that people said they should write a book. When they came back on the air, Peter said, “I understand there is a book in the works?”

David said, “Oh, yes” because David always agreed first, asked questions later.

And Peter said, “Who’s writing the book, is Karen writing the book?”

“Oh, yes . . . well, we haven’t asked her yet.”

Peter laughed. “Well, you’ve asked her now!”

I was listening to the program at my print shop and was stunned. Minutes later the phone started ringing. I suspected we might have a winner as orders for the book rolled in all afternoon. We started working on it the next day.

How long did it take?

I spent the first year interviewing. It was an arduous process transcribing the tapes and putting the stories in chronological order. Hard as it was, I enjoyed outlining and researching. I especially liked interviewing the Harwart sisters who were so full of love and honesty. I felt like I was in their mother’s kitchen. Jim Deighton cried the day we went to see him. He had no idea who I was and struggled to remember the twins as adults, but when he started talking about the times the twins would come running to his house in the middle of the night, his eyes were focused and memory clear. His recollections matched the twins’ exactly, but of course, from a different perspective. Anna and Leon Koch shook their heads and you could see they were still hurt they couldn’t do more to help the children. Unfortunately, there were people in the community who said publicly that the twins were lying, but I came away from those interviews with the Harwarts, Jim and the Kochs—people who had nothing to gain or lose—knowing that the twins were telling the truth.

When all the interviews were done, I turned to the first page of the outline and started writing. It was a very emotional time as the days, weeks and months that followed ran together in one giant blur. I remember nothing else from that time except the exhilarating feeling of being in flow. I knew exactly where the reader would cry because I was crying too.

How did I come up with the title?

While in the shower. It just popped into my head. I said it out loud and knew. We’d been talking about it for months and most of the word combinations focused on their stepfather. I like that the title is more about them.

People ask about the decision to self-publish, why I decided to take that route.

I had no choice. I sent out query letters early on and received nothing but rejections. Understanding the industry as I do now, it was actually quite reasonable on their part. All I queried with was a poorly written outline of what the story was about and I was an unproven author. All were polite, most were brief, but a few said they didn’t think the book would sell. The small presses in Winnipeg said it didn’t fit their list. And that was true.

The twins were counting on me and pressure was mounting. Every time a child abuse case was mentioned in the papers, Peter Warren would offer comments and remind everyone that the Pischke story would be available soon.

I met with the folks at Hignell Printing in Winnipeg and decided to have the book printed through them. I based my decision partially on the fact that they didn’t want to print the quantity of books I wanted to order. I asked for a quote for 5,000 but they strongly encouraged me to go with only 1,200. They were concerned I might end up with boxes of books I couldn’t sell and that made me trust them. The day I took in the file, ready to pay my deposit, they still didn’t want me to place a large order. We compromised at 3,000 copies which came to around $18,000.00

I had too much pride to ask the twins to contribute financially to the project, so I took it on myself. My loan proposal sent to the Women’s Enterprise Centre in Winnipeg was turned down; and Credit Union Central advised my local bank manager, Dwight Sander, against loaning me the money because it was too high risk.  My printing business was holding its own and there were no extra funds, but I wrote a cheque on that account anyway. It cleared. Two weeks later, I wrote another cheque and it cleared as well. When the first three hundred books were picked up the day of the launch, I paid the balance owing. I avoided looking at the print shop account balance knowing I was seriously overdrawn.

The launch was held Friday, November 29, 1996,  and we sold 140 copies that night. I went into the credit union the next morning (one day during this whirlwind process I’d opened a separate Book account) and made my first deposit. I caught Dwight’s eye and held up the deposit book and he winked. Within a few days, the overdraft was turned into a loan on the book account—but I don’t remember ever signing those loan papers. Where Children Run sold like crazy. By mid-January, I was back at Hignell Printing to order more books and it has been reprinted seven times since. The profit from those sales was split three ways between myself and the Pischke twins.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience. The first thing that comes to mind is that when people at the launch picked up the book they looked surprised. Some said, “It’s a real book.” I’d heard through the grapevine that there were people who told the Pischkes to find a better, more experienced writer than me, but they stuck with me anyway and in the end, I think I did a pretty good job of it. But most gratifying was the look on David and Dennis’s face when we cracked open that first box. They each lifted out a book and started to cry. David kept his and read it many times over, dog-earing it something fierce. After he died suddenly in 2004, his wife Lynne gave me his copy and I treasure it.

To what do I owe the book’s success?

The twins powerful storytelling and dumb luck. Peter Warren was a Godsend. He had us on his show a few days after the launch and the book took off. Without his support, I believe the story would have been much different. I think the book continues to sell because it is timeless. In all honesty, I had no expectations going into the process. All I hoped for was being able to pay that scary printing bill.

For years there have been discussions about a movie

We’ve met with three separate producers interested in turning the book into a movie, but the story does not lend itself well to a traditional television script. I’ve thought about it all these years and two summers ago came up with a solution. I have someone working on the idea and hopefully, we will hear something soon. If we hit another dead end, then I’ll tackle it myself.