(Book Club) Book Talk: ORPHAN TRAIN, by Christina Baker Kline

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline, via indiebound.org
Orphan Train: A Novel (book trailer)
Christina Baker Kline (Facebook) (Twitter) (Goodreads)
William Morrow Paperbacks (April 2013), paperback original (ISBN 0061950726 / 9780061950728)
Fiction (historical), 304 pages
Source: Publisher, for review consideration
Reason for Reading: SheReads Book Club selection, May 2013

Opening lines (Prologue): “I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.

“I am ninety-one years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.

“Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God. They fill silence with their weight, like bread dough, dense and rising under cloth. My gram, with her kind eyes and talcum-dusted skin. My da, sober, laughing. My mam, singing a tune. The bitterness and alcohol and depression are stripped away from these phantom incarnations, and they console and protect me in death as they never did in life.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:

English: Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & Ne...
Bird’s eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City, 1873 (via Wikipedia)

Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan” trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?

As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past.

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they appear. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past.

Comments: I first became aware of the “orphan trains” when I read Laura Moriarty’s historical novel The Chaperone last year. The trains ran between the East Coast and the Midwest between 1854 and 1929, with the mission of finding hope and homes in small-town America for children who’d been orphaned or otherwise left to fend for themselves in the overcrowded, impoverished streets of the city. Organized by the Children’s Aid Society, the trains–a well-intentioned, if controversial, program with a mixed success record–were one the United States’ earliest foster-care initiatives.

In Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline looks to this history to inform the story of two girls’ experience with foster care, eighty years apart. in 1928, Niamh Power, the only surviving daughter of an Irish immigrant family lost in a New York City tenement fire, is delivered to Children’s Aid by neighbors and placed on a train headed west. The train makes several stops along the way, and the children–a diminishing number at each stop–are presented to the locals; some will leave with new families, while others may end up as farm or domestic labor. Niamh is taken in by the Byrnes, a Minnesota couple who give her work in their small clothing business, a mattress on the floor in the hallway, and a new name, Dorothy; the placement ends when the Great Depression starts, and the girl’s luck goes from bad to worse until she ends up with the kindly Nielsens, where her name is changed one more time–to Vivian, after their own lost child.

Niamh/Vivian’s story is set in parallel with that of Molly, a modern-day seventeen-year-old who’s close to aging out of the Maine foster-care system. When Molly’s future is jeopardized by a reckless act–she steals a copy of Jane Eyre from the public library–a deal is struck; she can avoid the juvenile-justice system by doing fifty hours of community service. Thanks to her boyfriend, she finds an assignment helping an elderly woman sort through decades of belongings. The woman is Vivian, and despite the many years that separate them, their common frame of reference in foster care leads to the development of a real connection between her and Molly.

While Molly’s story is secondary to Vivian’s, Kline succeeds in making both of them distinct and intriguing characters, and although the last few chapters of the novel feel a bit rushed, the relationship that grows between them feels genuine. Although the behavior of some of the supporting characters can come across as clichéd at times, they don’t feel flat or overly stereotypical; Kline seems to write even the villains of her piece with some degree of sympathy. Orphan Train is engrossing and engaging, blending little-known history into a novel with contemporary resonance.

Rating: 3.75/5

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