Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was quite the historical novel. I had never heard of the term “orphan train” (and I have a few decades behind me), and found out through reading the novel that it was a factual event in American history.
According to Wikipedia: “The Orphan Train Movement was a welfare program that transported children from crowded cities of the United States, such as New York City and Boston, to willing foster homes across the country. The orphan trains ran between 1853 and 1929, relocating an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, reformers estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.”
I was quite shocked to realize that not only was the novel based on actual incidents, but also shocked at the extent of the movement.
The novel has two main characters, 17-year old Molly Ayer and 91-year old Vivian Daly. Molly is in the foster care system, living with a family that is torn regarding her. Her foster father likes her, her foster mother can’t tolerate her, she is in it for the monthly income they get for caring for Molly. They come together under unusual circumstances. Molly is fulfilling community service to keep her out of juvenile hall by helping Vivian clean out her attic of decades of boxes and collected items.
When Molly first encounters Vivian, she is an obnoxious teenager, and has to hold her tongue in check in order to remain somewhat civil towards Vivian. Vivian feels a sense of an underlying anger within Molly’s soul. During Molly’s time helping Vivian, she begins to soften her attitude due to the stories that Vivian relays to her, regarding her life during her childhood. Molly has her own stories to tell, and tell them to Vivian, she does.
Through the two of them opening boxes, looking over mementos, clothes and other items, they become emotionally attached to each other. With each item that is uncovered there is one that Vivian reflects upon, and the story is relayed to Molly. It seems the two of them are more alike than either of the imagined.
Molly, begins to see the world differently, with a more realistic viewpoint, and with a deeper understanding of who she is in the scheme of things.
I felt the characters were extremely realized, and were believable. I was fascinated, and also saddened, by the events regarding the orphan train. Many of the children were farmed out, literally, to live on farms where they were mistreated and used for labor purposes. It was an eye-opener, and after I finished reading it, I began to wonder how I had never heard of it. The movement began in New York City, run by Catholic Charities. I don’t remember it being taught in school, and I was schooled on Long Island, New York.
The story is written with sensitivity, but also with truth, blended together in a brilliant story line. Youth and aging co-exist in a lovely story, and one that could have occurred, as far as Molly and Vivian’s relationship. The writing was vividly detailed, and scenes seemed so realistic, I could visualize them happening.
Christina Baker Kline certainly did her research, and her writing displays it. I highly recommend Orphan Train to everyone! It was a book that is historically important, even though it is a novel. It is a book that I couldn’t put down until I finished it.