Title: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
No. of Pages: 304
Genre: Historical Fiction
Bottom Line: Eye-opening and heart-warming
“Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.”
Thoughts: During the late 1800s and into the 1900s, orphans from the major East coast cities were packed up and shipped off to the Midwest in hopes of finding them new families and opportunities that did not and would not exist for them had they remained on the streets. By most accounts, several hundred thousand children found themselves newly arrived in the Midwest through these orphan trains. Vivian Daly is one such orphan, having lost her family first through immigration from Ireland and then again in a tragic fire. Now, at the age of 91, with an attic filled with memories, she sets out to help another orphan who arrives at her doorstep in search of answers she doesn’t know she needs. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train explores their extraordinary friendship and their stories that helped make them the women they are today.
The historical elements of Orphan Train are absolutely fascinating, and one wonders why more is not known or written about the real-life orphan trains. Vivian’s experiences bring to life the fears and challenges these orphans faced as they were shipped across the country in search of a better life. What she finds is not necessarily a surprise but still heartbreaking as it shows how unwanted these children were even in faraway states. The fact that so many of them were not only able to survive the bleak conditions they found but also thrive is a testament to their fortitude and survival skills, and more attention should be paid to this generation of children who lost everything but found themselves.
The writing within Orphan Train is simple but beautiful. There are no flashy descriptions, and Ms. Kline uses dialogue sparingly but effectively. While the story itself is predictable, there is an element of methodical tension that keeps a reader’s interest. The plot unfolds slowly and carefully, and this pacing only barely covers the emotional turmoil underlying Vivian’s and Molly’s stories. There is no doubt this is deliberate on the part of Ms. Kline but in no way feels manipulative but rather a careful choice to allow a reader to get to seen beneath the words and understand the truth. That is not to say that the words themselves are completely without emotion. On the contrary, there is a lot that is said, but it is what is not said that drives home both the girls’ plights.
Both Molly and Vivian make delightful heroines and complement each other perfectly, even though their friendship is a foregone conclusion before they even meet. Yet, even the predictability of their friendship and Molly’s transformation under Vivian’s subtle influence does nothing to detract from the enjoyment of their interactions. Vivian’s stories give Molly the strength to try to improve the situation in her current foster home but also the willingness to step out on her own when it doesn’t work. In reliving her past, Vivian highlights how important it is to rely on one’s own strengths and intelligence and not on others. It is an important message, not only for Molly but for the reader as well.
Orphan Train is not without its bit of controversy however. First, there is the idea of shipping hundreds of thousands of orphans westward itself. The goal was to prevent these children from slipping into lives of crime and intense impoverishment, but the reality was that the program’s directors were seeking to find anyone willing to take these children, and it didn’t matter the reasons why the adults wanted the kids. Without any sort of vetting process or protection services for the children, some found themselves in even worse straits than they were in the East, and the mere idea of this is absolutely horrifying in today’s age. In addition, some of Vivian’s actions are quite surprising and, depending on one’s viewpoint, could be highly upsetting to readers. Her biggest secret is a well-kept one, and most readers won’t pick up on it until the big reveal. The surprise and shock of her decision will stun readers and generate an intense debate as to the rightness or wrongness of her actions. It is truly a special book that can do this and still remain appealing.
Ms. Kline’s Orphan Train is a beautiful piece of historical fiction interwoven within a modern-day story. With elements of social commentary towards the modern foster system as well as an inside look at the orphan train system around the turn of the century, it is provides food for thought and educational points. In addition, both Vivian and Molly are equally strong, independent, and yet endearingly fragile, more than earning a reader’s sympathy and empathy. Between their two stories, one understands how far the country has come in its treatment of orphans and how far we still need to go in order to protect this vulnerable demographic. Because of the grace with which it educates and yet forces a reader to debate some its more surprising elements, Orphan Train is a worthy addition to the wealth of fabulous spring releases this year.