I love reading historical fiction because it gives me the opportunity to learn something in a way that I generally find helpful because the information is wrapped into an interesting story with characters with whom I can identify.
Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, is a fascinating story about a real phenomenon about which I had never heard. Apparently in the 1800s, children – mostly immigrants — from the melting pot of New York City who found themselves orphaned for any number of reasons were shipped by train to the Midwest. Here they were (hopefully) adopted, or at least taken in, by families in need of help or desirous of a child of their own. These so-called orphan trains would make stops, people would examine each of the children and decide whether or not they met their specific needs. Some were looking for farm or house help. Others were wanting to be parents. Once the selections had been made, the train would move to the next town. At the end, apparently whoever was left went back to NYC to become part of the social service system (which was undoubtedly flawed).
As could be expected, very often the children were placed in situations that were less than desirable – abused, overworked, and neglected. Though part of the agreement was that the child would attend school, this likely often didn’t happen. If this novel is to be believed, there was very little oversight once the connection between the adult(s) and the child had been made.
Orphan Train is the story of a 10-year-old Irish girl whose father and siblings were burned in a fire and whose mother was unstable and uninterested in her remaining daughter. The girl, who eventually becomes Vivian, experiences a couple of unsavory family situations before finally landing with a kind couple in a small town in Minnesota.
Her story is juxtaposed with the contemporary story of Molly, an orphan who has similarly been in a variety of unsavory situations throughout her life. Molly eventually meets Vivian as part of a service project she must do to avoid jail time.
The story is told in a back-and-forth manner. Molly’s story contrasts and compares to the flashback stories of Vivian.
The book is a fast read and I found it to be a compelling story. While both Molly and Vivian experienced tremendous heartache and horror stories, they survived and thrived through their own perseverance. I enjoyed seeing them meet up and find comfort in each other.
I loved the ending of the book. It was fun to see Vivian find such joy in her life, including getting to understand and make use of technology.
There were only a couple of things that caused me any degree of consternation.
First, Molly’s and Vivian’s stories are so similar that I had a bit of trouble keeping the back stories straight. I’m not sure there is a lot the author could do about that, because undoubtedly many orphans’ stories are similar.
Second, I simply couldn’t accept that an orphan girl who had been through such rejection as Vivian would give up her child for adoption. Even given the circumstances, I think that she would be unwilling to risk that her child would possibly go through what she did.
Finally, I also found Vivian’s immediate reconnection to Dutchy to be a bit unrealistic. She didn’t mention him but once or twice throughout the book, and so I didn’t get the impression that she had been pining for him. Still, I recognize that when people have been through something like they had together, the connection might always be there.
I think this is a great book for a discussion group, and I will definitely read another by the author.
Here are a couple of things to think about…..
Who did you like better, Molly or Vivian?
Did Vivian’s secret take you by surprise, and did you have a similar reaction to me? Or could you empathize with Vivian’s wishes to not raise the child herself?
Favorite characters? Least favorite characters?
Had you known anything about orphan trains prior to this book?
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