Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (April 2, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0061950726
  • Source: Publisher

Molly Ayer is in foster care, about to “age out” of the system. When she steals a book from the library, she’s forced to do community service to avoid placement in juvenile hall.  She agrees to help an elderly woman named Vivian clean out her attic, filled with decades of possessions and memories. As the two begin the task, they soon understand that they are more alike than it may appear on the surface. Vivian opens up to Molly, sharing a part of her history she’s kept silent about for decades.

As a child, Vivian was orphaned after a horrendous fire tore through her family’s home.  As a young Irish immigrant with no surviving family, she was sent on a train that left from New York and traveled out west, known as the orphan train. Thousands of other children embarked on trains like this,  their future unknown. Many were matched with warm, inviting families. Others, like Vivian, weren’t treated as part of a family but instead workers or caregivers for younger children.

Told in alternate point of views, switching from present time to the late 1800s/1900s, both Molly and Vivian share the experiences and situations that brought them to their current place in life.  When their relationship begins, Molly sees Vivian as a wealthy senior citizen that couldn’t possibly understand the challenges she is going through. While she is placed in a foster home, the relationship she has with her foster mother is less than inviting. Like Vivian, who was a constant outcast due to her red hair and Irish heritage, Molly (a Penobscot Indian) feels shunned due to her own heritage. As the bond between these two individuals is cultivated, they each see a bit of themselves in the other, an understanding that not many others share.

Orphan Train is a heartwarming novel rich with dynamic, sympathetic characters and rich historical detail. All of the characters, including the secondary, become alive on the pages making the reader easily forget that they are fictional entities rather than actual living people. It is impossible not to form a connection with Vivian and Molly and celebrate the connection they have found in one another.

I originally learned about orphan trains while reading The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. Since discovering this often unfamiliar part of our country’s history, I have become fascinated with the subject matter. I was pleased to see the amount of information Christina Baker Kline has on her web site about this topic, including the actual journey Vivian would have taken on the orphan train in 1929 to historical background information the author discovered in writing this novel. While this novel is rich with historical detail, the reader never feels like they are being lectured or overwhelmed with historical facts. Personally, I wanted to know more about the orphan train system, a subject matter I plan to do more research on myself.

All in all, Orphan Train is a novel is one that will resonate within me for some time. To hear of the journey taken by these orphan children and what they had to endure to find a home is incredibly heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Vivian came alive within the pages of this novel. While I am not adopted, she has inspired me to learn more about my own heritage for she has proven the power and importance of honoring and celebrating one’s heritage.

This is a novel that is full of discussion worthy topics perfect for a book club, including love, resilience, endurance and more. Highly, highly recommended.

Orphan Train is the May book club selection for She Reads. Join us Thursday, May 23rd for an online discussion about this title. Click here for more information.

5 Responses to Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

  1. Great review!!! I was definitely left with wanting to know more about orphan trains and this part of our history. I haven’t read The Chaperone, but have added it to my to-read list. I would love to know what your research turns up!

    ~Kristin @ Always With a Book

  2. Great post! Thanks for bringing this book – and The Chaperone – to my attention. I read a series of books centered around the orphan trains as a kid (A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon is the first book in the series), and remember being fascinated by the historical elements, but I never researched it. I’m adding both this one and The Chaperone to my list, and I look forward to other books that you may find and choose to highlight here. :)

  3. I agree it’s a noteworthy part of U.S. history that’s not talked about in high school history classes. I didnt know much about it either till Moriarity’s novel. Orphan Train looks a good one on the topic

  4. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads

    I’ve been wanting to read this — It’s a fascinating subject. You make a strong case for reading this!

  5. wow this looks like a poignant read. Great review. Adding this to my to read list.