Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Orphan Train is the story of two girls who have a lot in common. They don’t meet until Vivian is 91 and Molly is 17.
It’s 2011 when we first meet Molly. As defined by parental presence, Molly is an orphan. Her dad is long-gone and her mom is in prison. She’s been in the foster care system in Maine for most of her life. She’s very savvy about how different foster families behave and has developed personal habits to protect herself.
But, Molly gets into trouble when she tries to steal a book from the library. She’s given the choise of living at “Juvie” or doing community service. She chooses community service. Her assignment is to help an elderly woman clean out all the stored boxes in her house.
This is when Molly meets Vivian. She appears to Molly to be a wealthy, elderly woman whose lived the cushy life. As Molly helps Vivian go through all her stored memorabilia, Molly discovers Vivian’s childhood was similar to her own – Vivian was in the 1929 version of foster care.
At the age of eight Vivian was put on a train out of New York City with hundreds of other children. Her family were recent immigrants from Ireland but, were all killed in tenement fire, except for her. All the children on the train were sent into the Midwest where it was believed that good farm families would give them all loving homes.
The train would stop in a community and line the children up on the depot’s platform. Adults would check them out and pick the ones they wanted. Babies always went first, and then the older boys, who would serve as unpaid farm hands. Vivian wasn’t picked until she had traveled as far as Minnesota. There she was picked by someone who owned a dress factory. Vivian was needed as a clean-up worker and a future sewer.
As in Molly’s experience, Vivian moved from home to home. In one case I wouldn’t even call where she lived a home. It was a rat-infested shack where the wife wanted a house-slave and the man wanted, well, something else. And the foster-care man-in-charge saw all that and left her there anyway.
As I read the story of Vivian, which is most of the novel, I was almost always angry. I thought of my own precious eight-year-old granddaughter and was filled with rage. How can anyone treat an eight-year-old like that? It would be easy to excuse this situation as something that happened a long time ago, but Molly reminded the reader of the current foster care system. I was also reminded of other children being mis-tread around the world.
The story of Vivian broke my heart. But, Vivian was a survivor, thank goodness, and took control of her situation. It was rewarding to see how Vivian’s life advanced. And, I also liked how the telling of her story to Molly helped both Vivian and Molly.
Do read this novel. It’s very good basic storytelling. The author wrote beautifully and was heavy on the details and with the ability to pull in the reader’s emotions. Well, at least this reader’s emotions. I believe you’ll enjoy it too.