Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline 278 pages
In an act of judging a book by its cover, I thought that Orphan Train was a story about the Kindertransport, the organized rescue effort that happened during the nine months before the outbreak of World War II when approximately 10,000 from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They were placed in foster homes, schools, farm and hostels in the United Kingdom.
In a way I was wrong and right. This story is about the relocation of children, but instead of Europe, it happened here in in America between 1854 and 1929. Indigent, orphaned or abandoned children from the East Coast were put on trains to be fostered or adopted by Midwestern families, who often treated them like slaves.
Christina Baker Kline’s novel, Orphan Train, tackles this almost-forgotten aspect of American history. Vacillating between Spruce Harbor, Maine, in 2011, and New York, Chicago, and Minnesota of 1929 to 1943, readers meet two children in dire circumstances.
First is seventeen-year-old Molly, who has been sentenced to community service. She is to help an old woman cleanout her attic. The old woman, Vivian, maybe ninety-one years old, but she has a few sparks left in her. Her whole life is in that attic. She doesn’t so much want to clean it out, but look back and remember her life.
Vivian, along with her parents and three siblings, emigrated from Ireland in 1929. She and her parents lived in one of New York City’s infamous tenements. After her family dies in a fire, Vivian, whose birth name is Niamh Power, is sent to the Children’s Aid Society and ultimately placed on a train bound for Minnesota.
While Molly’s story frames Vivian’s story, both take solace in each other. Molly learns that she doesn’t have it so bad after all. Poor Vivian went by several names before Vivian was finally settled on her.
This is a tale of loss, turbulence, resilience, second chances, adaptability, and courage. Be prepared to not get anything else accomplished once you start this wonderfully woven tale.
Orphan Train receives 4 out of 5 stars in Julie’s world.