As soon as Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was released in 2013, I immediately added it to my Want-To-Read list since I enjoy historical fiction, and it sounded intriguing. My two main book groups both chose it as a selection in 2014…and I missed both discussions! I finally had the chance to read it this spring when my library’s discussion group chose it. I’m sorry I waited so long! I really enjoyed this fascinating, engrossing novel weaving a unique event in U.S. history with a modern story.
In Spruce Harbor, Maine, in 2011, seventeen-year old Molly is living with yet another set of foster parents, Ralph and Diana. Ralph is OK, but Diana clearly doesn’t want Molly there. Molly is close to aging out of the foster system, but a single impulsive action has made juvie a distinct possibility, unless Molly can complete a number of volunteer hours. Her boyfriend arranges for her to help clean out the attic for Vivian, a 91-year old woman living in a big mansion, for whom his mother cleans house.
Native American Molly – young, Goth, and unwanted – thinks she is completely different from the wealthy, elderly Vivian, but as they work together to clean out the attic and begin going through Vivian’s old memories stored there, the two gradually realize they have quite a bit in common.
Vivian emigrated through Ellis Island from Ireland with her family when she was just seven years old. When she was nine, she lost her parents in a fire. As an orphan in New York City, Vivian was put on an “orphan train,” heading to the Midwest, where she and the other orphans were put on display at each stop until a family chose them. While some of the babies were actually adopted, most older kids like Vivian became indentured servants, put to work for their host families.
Kline interweaves these two stories – Vivian’s coming-of-age story, beginning in 1929 when the train takes her and the other orphans out west, and Molly’s modern-day story – into an intriguing, compelling narrative. I found each of the stories – the historical one and the modern one – equally interesting and couldn’t wait to see how they would finally come together to help heal both of the main characters.
Orphan Train is well-written and engaging. I found the historical backdrop fascinating – these orphan trains really ran in the United States for 75 years, as the author explains in notes at the end of the novel. I love a novel where two disparate stories gradually come together, so I enjoyed watching Vivian and Molly slowly share their secrets with each other. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this unique novel and am so glad I finally found the time to read it!
278 pages, William Morrow
NOTE: One of the other women in my library’s discussion group pointed out that there are a number of nonfiction books about the orphan trains, where you can read about real-life children sent west on them. There are also a couple of movies, one fictional and one documentary, if you want to learn more.