Orphan Train: A Novel By Christina Baker Kline
(William Morrow Paperbacks; 304 pages; $14.99)
“The things that matter stay with you, seep into your skin…”
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is the fictional account of a very real movement that brought homeless children from American Eastern cities by train to the Midwest and West. The intention was to offer homeless and abandoned children a fresh start and given a chance of being welcomed into new families. “Orphan trains” carried more than 200,000 children across the country from 1854 to 1929. Once they reached their new homes, many of the children were provided for and eventually adopted, while others were treated harshly, like little more than indentured servants; an extra body, a pair of hands to help with work on the farm.
Christina Baker Kline’s story chronicles the life of a young girl, Niamh, an Irish immigrant living in the tenements of New York City. The lone survivor of a family apartment fire, Niamh is brought by a neighbor to The Children’s Aid Society, one of the agencies that took orphans in and arranged their transport and placement. Alone, with no connection to any living family member, Niamh boards the Orphan Train bound for Minnesota with about 20 other children. At a number of train depots, the children are paraded in front of local families, who choose whom they will take in often based on age, appearance, and sex.
When it comes to being chosen, Niamh has plenty of strikes against her as a redhead, a girl, and an adolescent. The most desirable of the orphans were strong 14-15 year old boys who could help with the hard work of living off the land.
Shuffled from one family to another, Niamh is at the mercy of these families, experiencing more than her share of hardships and dysfunction. She lives with the indignity of being stripped of her name, according to the personal preference of the families who take her in. Despite instability, Naimh, eventually known as Vivian, can see a thread that runs through her life that feels more like fate and less like chance.
Fate brings together Vivian, now 91 years old, and 17-year-old Molly, a child of the foster care system, when Molly has to fulfill community service hours in order to avoid juvenile detention.
Told in alternating voices, the story unfolds through the newly formed relationship between Vivian and Molly; both travel through time as their stories intertwine over the myriad boxes of memories and treasures housed in Vivian’s attic. The two discover they have much in common, including the loss of their families, which has forced them to forge through life often alone.
Captivating and engaging, Orphan Train is one of those rare stories that kept me up late into the night, unwilling to put the book down. I was enthralled by this unfolding piece of American history I was unaware of…and by the double narrative that carried me to Ireland for a spell, New York City, Minnesota, and Maine.
When the book ended, I sobbed at the depth and vigor of life, love, and loss it so vividly portrayed. But I was heartened by the delightful fact that I was invited to a book group, where the author Christina Baker Kline was the honored guest. What a treat to hear about how Christina was drawn to the story through her husband’s family history. And how what started as a potential article for People magazine, unfolded as this multi-faceted story of our nation’s history that was at once dark with shame and uncertainty and bright with hope for a better life.
When I went to bed that night, after finishing Orphan Trainand meeting its author, I was sorry the journey was over. I missed my friends Vivian and Molly, who I had come to know and love.
Ultimately,Orphan Trainis an uplifting story of human will, connection, determination, and even joy, laced with the pain, sometimes very deep, that accompanies many of us on this journey called life.
Orphan Train, has received a number of accolades, including a place on the New York Times Bestseller list several weeks running. It’s the perfect summer read.
Elise has been married for 28 years and is mom to four mostly grown girls. She is a writer, editor, writing coach, and blogger. She believes we all have stories that matter--big life bios and small meaningful moments. Elise believes our stories are a reflection of God’s glory and are meant to be shared. They have the power to inform, reform, and transform. She loves God, familly, friends...and really likes travel!