Margin Notes: Orphan Train

Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train is a gripping story of friendship and second chances from Christina Baker Kline, author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be.
Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse...
As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had never heard of Orphan Trains and wasn't sure what to think when I picked this book up. I was pleasantly surprised--I enjoyed the subject of this book and the main character, Vivian/Niamh.

Writing style: this book is written simply, it isn't stylish, it isn't nuanced, it isn't deep, it's easy reading and reads a little more like a middle grade reading level than adult, but the plot was interesting to me, so I put that aside.

Plot: This is a plot within a plot kind of book. A modern day 'orphan' (she's in the welfare system) in Maine, Molly, steals a book from the library and has to do community service to make up for it. She ends up helping an older, wealthy woman, Vivian, clean out her attic. Vivian seems not to want to part with anything, and instead you learn about her past. She was an immigrant from Ireland with her family, her family lived in a tenement in NYC, and then most died from an illness that swept through the building. Her neighbors end up housing her for a night and then she's off to the orphanage. With red hair and being a little on the older side, she has few expectations of being adopted, so she's put on an orphan train bound for the Midwest. She meets a friend on the train who comes back into the story a bit later, and eventually is selected by a townsperson. We then follow her through a couple brutal placements until she ends up with a lovely teacher who sets her up with a family who takes great care of her and the story goes from there. However... I will say, the end of her story was a little easy / neat.

I had never heard of Orphan Trains prior to reading this book. I just read an article in the NYTs about something similar in Switzerland that referenced this practice. I'm a history nerd, so the combo orphan train / immigration from Ireland story was a great subject and I really enjoyed Vivian's character.

Now, Molly's story, on the other hand... her story line is a little contrived, her foster parents are a little caricaturist, her boyfriend is insipid, and you don't know how her story is going to end. There was so much opportunity lost in this part of the story. The parallels between Molly and Vivian, the opportunity to turn someone from a person who isn't that afraid of jail (side note, who would ever go to jail for stealing a library book, that's bizarre) into someone with a future and a path, the opportunity to build her up into a character I sympathized with (the whole vegetarian thing and goth thing were so predictable...). I just felt like her story was a throw away that could have been much, much better.

Interesting historical, quick read, enjoyable for sure... just not memorable or particularly well written. It didn't jump off of the page.

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