Book Review: Orphan Train

 Many, many thanks to Edelweiss and William Morrow publishers for allowing me to read an advanced copy of Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. (Publication of Orphan Train is set for April 2013. It seems like such a long ways away! Hopefully it can be released sooner so you won’t have to wait so long to grab this one!)

I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed this book! I’m sitting here wondering if I should write in the Prologue in its entirety? Because as soon as I read the Prologue I knew that I would not be putting this book down until it was finished. It was then I also realized it was going to be a book very much like On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry, of which I truly and absolutely enjoyed. Which then led me to reflect on my love for this genre and style of book in particular, and why the Orphan Train was such a wonderful read for me. It was the realization of my love for history, in particular personal and family history. I have always been drawn to history, excelled at it in school, and in particular I’ve always been very drawn to these very personal histories of families and children and their coming of age during times of immigration, hardship etc. I’m always amazed at what young children have been able to overcome and how they adapt, survive and grow in to adulthood. I’m also thinking I missed out on not taking any Anthropology courses in University. (hmmmm, should enrol in one now?)

At any rate, Orphan Train covers so much of these favoured subjects and is written so finely I finished it in a very short time period.  Background taken from Edelweiss about Orphan Train: Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children between the ages of 2 and 14 from the East Coast to the Midwest for foster care and adoption. But their treatment often amounted to indentured servitude. Chosen first were infants, for more traditional adoptions, and older boys, for their manual labor; adolescent girls were typically selected last. While some children quickly found love and acceptance, many walked a harder road.

Orphan Train is set in modern-day Maine and early twentieth-century Minnesota.  Kline spends every summer on the coast of Maine and has built a large fan base in the area.  She has also spent 25 years traveling to Minnesota where her husband’s family lives, and has strong ties to the orphan-train riders’ community in the state.

Christina Baker Kline also features on her website, her “work in progress”, which is this novel, and has more story with a few pictures of “The Train Rider“. Please take a moment to read through, it really is fascinating and covers this subject that isn’t well known in American history. I’ve often read about the WWII stories of putting Jewish children, or simply their children on trains to take them away from their war-torn cities to a place of safety. In particular, Alison Pick’s novel, Far to Go comes to mind. However, the Orphan Train is about the orphaned or homeless children living on America’s east coast in the late 1880s – 1930s whom were brought by train to America’s Midwest to be auctioned off (in a way) to people living in small towns or in the country.

After reading Christina’s story on her website and discovering that her previous novels also cover family history and cultural identity, I am for certain going to be adding more of her books to my To Be Read pile.

Orphan Train opens with Vivian (Niamh/Dorothy) Daly, now aged 91, sitting in her home in Maine 2011, recalling her early childhood plight and how she found herself riding the oprhan train from New York to Minneapolis. Throughout the novel, the story will switch back from present day to Vivian’s past and through the time she is placed in a myriad of homes. What begins to trigger Vivian’s memories is a result of the community service hours that Molly Ayers must provide in order to stay out of juvenile detention. Molly Ayers is a product of many failed foster homes and was caught stealing a library book. What occurs over these 50 hours of service is one very striking, yet unlikely friendship and a remarkable story filled with loss, longing, perseverance and determination.

Molly Ayers is a 17 year old girl that has been tossed around the foster care system for much of her life. Her father was killed in her young age and her mother mentally unstable and in and out of jail too much to properly care for her. Molly is living with a couple in which the wife, Dina, has absolutely no desire to have a teenage girl living under her roof, and the husband, Ralph, who wishes to have a better relationship with both his wife and Molly for he sees the potential in her. Molly has endured many years in the foster care system and thus, has created a harsh, unbreakable, goth exterior that includes a skunk-style dye job, multiple piercings and one tattoo and of course, one closed off nasty attitude. However, in order to remain with Dina and Ralph, no matter how troublesome this family is, and to not change cities or schools, Molly must agree to 50 hours of community service time cleaning out the attic of Vivian Daly, the very old lady living on her own in a mansion in Spruce Harbor.

Vivian’s childhood is really not all that much different than Molly’s, and during their journey through the many, many boxes of things from Vivian’s past, Molly begins to slowly shed her armored exterior and creates a close and strong bond with Vivian. With each item pulled from a box, Vivian takes us back to the time where it first came in to her life and we hear her very personal story of all she endured after arriving in Minneapolis those many years before. Vivian endured much and yet matured in to adulthood with a very strong reserve. Your heart will break for Vivian and you will also smile for Molly as she becomes closer to this formidable woman. Another solid 4-star read for me! I miss Vivian terribly and wish I could be the one sitting in her attic listening to her fascinating story.

You can read more about Christina Baker Kline on her website here.

You can read more about the orphan train riders on Orphan Train Depot. There are further personal stories of orphan train riders to read as well, one is Andrea Warren’s An Orphan Train Rider – One Boy’s True Story.