Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by luck or chance. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?
As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past.
Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past.
Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship. Click here for more background on Orphan Train.
(Synopsis from Christina Baker Kline’s website.)
You might say I have a fascination with most things orphan-related. Raised by a father who was in an orphanage from age eight to 16, I am thankful that he was not one of the 200,000 plus children moved across the country on the orphan trains. Of course, that is not to say that some of those children on the trains were not eventually placed in good homes, likely better off than my father.
As part of my basis for wanting to read Orphan Train, my father’s history is key. However, I’m also working toward writing a novel based around the early orphanage system in the United States which, like the system attempting to protect the orphans riding the trains, did not always work as a safety net for their young lives and health.
Christina Baker Kline has crafted a novel based in opposing times centered around two women generations apart in age, background, and history. And yet, these two women come together in a most unusual way to share their stories and lives, consummating in the most unlikely of friendships.
Molly Ayer, almost 18 when the story opens, has run the gamut of foster homes and is about to “age out.” To keep herself out of juvenile hall, Molly knows she must take a community service project. Of all things, her assignment is to help an elderly woman clean her attic and possibly dispose of some of her past.
The elderly woman, Vivian Daly, has a tumultuous past that she has managed to fade into blurriness. What little she does remember includes a boat trip across the ocean from Ireland, living in a less than healthy flat in New York, and then being placed on a train and being passed from home to home when things didn’t work out.
What Molly and Vivian don’t realize at the outset is that their backgrounds have parallels that will bring them ever closer to one another in friendship as well as hope and healing.
Kline’s writing is luminous, historically correct as she switches between contemporary time and the Depression era, and her characters marvelously developed with distinct descriptive detail.
My Recommendation: Orphan Train is a MUST READ if for no other reason than it highlights a time in our history that is little known and points to the broken system of foster care in our country today. You’re going to love this book!
“In this poignant novel Christina Baker Kline weaves a tapestry of the
intertwining lives of two women and affirms our hope that the present can
redeem the past and that love has a genuine power to heal.
Reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabel, this Orphan Train carries us
along until the stories of these two women become one.”
– Mary Morris, bestselling author of
Nothing to Declare and Revenge: A Novel
* * *
Meet the Author:
Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. In addition to Orphan Train, her novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water.
Kline also commissioned and edited two widely praised collections of original essays on the first year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow. She coauthored a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins, with her mother, Christina L. Baker, and she coedited About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror with Anne Burt.
Kline grew up in Maine, England, and Tennessee, and has spent a lot of time in Minnesota and North Dakota, where here husband grew up. She is a graduate of Yale, Cambridge, and the University of Virginia, where she was a Hoyns Fellow in Fiction Writing. She has taught creative writing and literature at Fordham and Yale, among other places, and is a recent recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation fellowship. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her family.
* * *
NEXT TIME: Let’s take a look at favorite places to read. Be ready to share your favorite spot to curl up with a good book and your favorite drink.