Years ago, I went to hear Christina Baker Kline talk about her book Orphan Train. The local public library sponsored the event. I always prefer to hear the author talk about their book before I read it. Everyone has such unique writing styles. I like to hear how the story developed before I launch into the read because I’m weird like that. This book ended up in the stash I keep in the closet under the stairs for some odd reason. I recently dusted it off and started reading. I am so glad I did. My November book review will be Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train.
What the Orphan Train is all about
Orphan Train is a historical novel based on a forgotten piece of American History. The novel consists of two parallel stories. The first involves Molly, a foster kid who must do community service because she tried to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from a local library. Her boyfriend, Jack, arranges for her to help clean out an elderly lady’s attic. The second story revolves around Niamh Power, placed on the Orphan Train after losing her family in a fire by the Children’s Aid Society. Her name is changed three times throughout her life until she becomes the elderly lady, Vivian, who needs Molly to help her discard the stuff she collected over the years. I found the brilliant connection between the two stories captivating.
Although the characters in Kline’s book were fictional, orphan trains did exist. The Children’s Aid Society took poor immigrant children off the streets of eastern cities such as New York and sent them to the midwest. People could select these children as the train traveled west. They were supposed to feed, clothe, and educate these kids in exchange for free labor. This swap was a form of indentured servitude. It was the luck of the draw for children riding the orphan train. Sometimes they ended up with a good family, but more often than not, they found themselves in bad situations.
Highlights I discovered while reading the Orphan Train
There were a lot of highlights in this book. I will mention two I found very interesting. The first was when Molly starts her community service cleaning out Vivian’s attic. She isn’t sure how to take this old lady who doesn’t want to get rid of her junk. We know there is so much more to Vivian’s story than what meets the eye because we, as the reader, have already experienced snippets of her journey on the Orphan Train.
The second highlight I found fascinating is when Vivian is reunited with Dutchy. They first met riding the Orphan Train years ago. Vivian is now a young woman, and Dutchy has turned into a talented piano player. Their reunion leads to the novel’s main love story. I won’t go into how that turns out because I don’t want to give anything away.
Story development in the Orphan Train
Kline told this story like a true storytelling master. The parallel story of Niamh, who I refer to as Vivian to cut down on the confusion, and Molly, the foster home goth girl, gives the reader understanding. The foster care system is the modern equivalent to the Orphan Train. Vivian’s past experiences help Molly navigate her world in the present.
I also enjoyed how Kline weaved the historical events in regards to the Orphan Train into the story. The Children’s Aid Society acted in good faith. They tried to rescue homeless street kids from mean city streets by taking them to a rural area where they could have a chance at a better life. There was no vetting system in the equation. Anyone could take these children to be used as free labor. They could keep them for a time without suffering any consequences for giving the children back. If the children were abused, nobody believed them. Any problems that arose in the placement were the kid’s fault. The foster care system is an improvement over the Orphan Train but still has its issues, as pointed out by Molly’s experience in the book.
Worldbuilding in the Orphan Train
Kline did a wonderful job of building the world of the early 1900s and switching suddenly to Maine in 2011. Both worlds were very realistic. She used the style of dress, mannerisms, and technology in a skillful way to reflect the changes in the two time periods.
One example of this is when Molly uses the computer to investigate mysteries from Vivian’s past. She even teaches Vivian how to use a computer and acquire a Facebook page.
Memorable characters I met in Orphan Train
The brilliant character development in the Orphan Train caused the reader to fall in love with the lives created in the pages of the book. Even though the reader knows the characters are fictional, it is easy to see how they could have existed. Both Molly and Vivian take on real-life personas. The character development in the story makes what could have been a dry historical read interesting.
Overall opinion of Orphan Train
I fell in love with this book. There is no explanation as to why it took me so long to read it, but I’m glad I did. Maybe I got busy with life and forgot I bought the book. Who knows, but I found the story captivating, and the ending brought tears to my eyes. I was shocked to discover organizations made up of people and family members who rode the Orphan Trains, searching for the secrets of the past. If you are looking for a good read, pick up a copy of Orphan Train. I think you will love it as much as I did.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures, click here.
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