Monday, April 1, 2013

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Goodreads: The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers 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.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, 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.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.


My thoughts: This book comes just a tad shy of a four star review, honestly. There is no clear reason except that it didn't grab my attention as much as a true 4 star book would but that's subjective. It is still a compelling read.

The idea of writing a novel featuring a child from the Orphan Trains is fantastic. It is one of those moments in American history that is somewhat glossed over. It wasn't taught in any history class I took in high school or college. In fact, I was only made aware of the Orphan Trains a couple of years ago from a colleague who is a former history teacher. Writing a historical fiction book about children from these trains is sobering.

The author brings different experiences into the story that are realistic and true to life. The children on the trains were often already homeless and living on the streets of New York in slums. They usually children of recent immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Germany. Tragedy, death and abject poverty are already a constant in their lives before they are placed in orphanages. Without social programs, other solutions needed to be explored and so "Orphan Train" was born.

The number of children that were part of this movement is staggering. Over 200,000 children boarded a train for the Midwest where they traveled in hunger and were paraded to a city meeting building. They were then poked, prodded, teeth checked, and other humiliations, and some were taken from the line where the couple signed a couple of papers and left. Babies were in demand but so were strong, sturdy boys. They were used for free labor on farms for which many were ill-equipped for the hardships of the climate and work. They were used, abused, beat, whipped, occasionally raped, and starved. They slept with the animals in an unheated barn and treated less than human with expectations unheard of in today's society. If they didn't work out for the couple, the couple gave them back in which they would be taken to another home for a similar treatment or sent back to New York.

The story is about Vivian, at least that's the name she finally ended up with. She is born in Ireland, lives in New York, watches those she loves die or otherwise leaves her life. She enters an orphanage and finally a train. The next 12 years are the sum of her formative years.

In juxtaposition of Vivian is Molly, a 17 year old girl in foster care serving community hours while helping Vivian clean out her attic. The relationship deepens and they become close friends as Vivian relives those tragic years while going through her possessions. Molly relates to Vivian in many ways including her rootlessness. Not only is Molly no longer cared for by her parents, she is part Native American and carries the burdens of her forefathers.

It is an engaging book.


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