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Book Review: Orphan Train

Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Published: 2013
Number of Pages: 294
My Rating: 3

Summary from
The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.
Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.
Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers 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.
The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, 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 is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

         The idea of this book intrigued me from the very beginning, as the story is from a part of our history that I knew little to nothing about beforehand. While Orphan Train is considered fiction, there is definitely a lot about it that draws from actual events in our nation's history. 

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of homeless, abandoned, or orphaned children were packed onto trains and sent to the Midwest, where they were lined up and picked for free by families that wanted them- whatever the reason didn’t matter. Some were lucky enough to be adopted into a wonderful family that cared for them, while others were essentially servants, taken into families that wanted an extra worker, not a child.

The story splits between present day, following around a child in foster care named Molly, and the 1920s, tracing the journey of Vivian who was one of those unfortunate children on the orphan train. Molly gets into trouble and has to serve some community service time, which turns out to be helping Vivian, ninety-one years old, to clean out and organize her attic. The two time periods flip back and forth and we get to see how Molly and Vivian adjust to each other and also get to hear Vivian’s story. I liked this aspect of the book as I enjoyed getting to see how their stories were somewhat similar despite the time difference and I was interested to see how they would connect in the end.

One thing that bothered me was that both of them had the typical horrible-foster-care-home and strong-willed-awful-foster-mother that we see in a lot of stories about the foster care system. While I do acknowledge that this happens a lot more often than it should, I have experience working with children in these situations, there are also a ton of great homes and families out there and I feel like stories such as this perpetuate the stigma and stereotype.

Another thing about Molly that I found kind of convenient was the fact that she had no behavior problems despite her awful situation and the only reason she had community service in the first place was that she tried to steal Jane Eyre from the public library. Sigh. We didn’t really find out what happened to her in the end as the book ended abruptly. I would’ve liked things to wrap up a little bit more for her.

Overall, I did enjoy the historical aspect of this book as well as the information about subject matter I knew little about. It has made me want to research more about the orphan trains and read more accounts of them. However, I feel like the writing could’ve been a little stronger and the plot a lot less predictable. This book had great potential and fell a little short for me. I do thank the author, however, for exposing us to an unfortunate event from our history that we all need to learn more about.

-Busy Brunette


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