Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge. Orphan Train tells the stories of two young “orphan” girls, Vivian and Molly. Vivian’s story begins in New York City in 1929, months before the Black Friday stock market crash. We learn of her voyage from Ireland with her family, the tragedy that leaves her essentially orphaned, and then follow her journey when she is placed on a train to the Midwest by the Children’s Aid Society in the hopes of finding a placement family. Molly’s story of her early years with her parents and her subsequent journey through the foster care system in the present day intertwines with Vivian’s throughout the book. As unlikely as it might seem, their stories are remarkably similar and creates an unexpected bond of friendship.
This post does not contain spoilers.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
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As Roberta mentioned in her Writer’s Review, Orphan Train is categorized as Historical Fiction. Unlike Roberta, though, I am a huge fan of historical fiction and I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time. One of the reasons I love historical fiction is that I often learn some previously unknown-to-me historical information, and Orphan Train certainly provided me with that. I was unfamiliar with the Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit organization formed by Charles Loring Brace in 1853 to ensure the physical well-being of homeless children in New York City (not always orphans) and to provide them with the support and training needed to become successful adults. Brace felt that placement with a family that could provide work, schooling, and a home situation would be more beneficial to the children than an institutional setting. He came up with the idea of “orphan trains” – children were placed on a train with Children Aid Society chaperones and taken out of the city to various destinations across the country. Notices were posted in the destination towns and when the trains arrived, the children were inspected and selected by the prospective foster families – often for the amount of work the child looked capable of handling or a specific talent, such as sewing, rather than for any altruistic desire to provide a loving home. Baker’s descriptions of Vivian’s early placements with families exposed just how brutal and traumatic those placements could be.
The orphan trains sound like something out of dystopian novel, yet they really did happen. Over the course of 76 years (the last train run was in 1929), more than 200,000 children rode the trains and began new lives. Since they were required to leave any and all personal possessions behind, and many were given new first names by their foster or adoptive families, they truly were new lives, for better or worse.
The Children’s Aid Society (now called simply Children’s Aid) is still in existence, providing various support programs (medical, educational, legal, mental health, etc.) to NYC families and children, along with fostering and adoption options. Many of its child welfare programs were considered ground-breaking when begun but commonplace today. The “fresh air” program is one that I was familiar with while growing up in upstate New York during the 1970s. Several families I knew would have “fresh air” children from NYC staying with them during the summer.
When we are first introduced to Vivian and Molly, they appear to have nothing in common. Vivian inherited a business from her parents and she and her now-deceased husband were able to retire to a life of comfort and ease. At the age of 90, she’s outlived her family and friends and is content to live an isolated life with a housekeeper to cook her meals and maintain the household. Molly, on the other hand, has bounced around a few foster homes and feels that her current foster situation is tenuous, at best. She’d like to stay where she is currently placed until she “ages out” of the system in another few months, but her present foster mother isn’t really on board with her husband’s desire to foster. More than once Molly pulls out her duffel bags and begins to pack her belongings while listening to her foster parents argue over whether to keep her. Life is uncertain at best for Molly.
Molly and Vivian are brought together in a joint effort to clean out Vivian’s cluttered attic, and as Vivian reveals her life’s story bit by bit, Molly’s efforts to maintain an emotional distance from everyone in her life begin to fail. Christina Baker Kline does a wonderful job of revealing the true essence of these two strong and capable women.
Life is not always pleasant and rarely easy if you are an immigrant and/or an orphan child, no matter what time period you live in. Both Vivian’s and Molly’s stories highlight that, as a child, you have no control and usually very little say over what the adults in your life decide for you. Yet both of these young girls rise above the trials and traumas of childhood to become strong individuals. I was struck by their resilience and tenacity. Orphan Train also illustrates that even the smallest acts of kindness – providing a place to sleep for a few nights, a temporary job, or even just the gift of a book – can give hope and effect real change in the life of an individual, a message we should all take to heart.
Have you read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
- Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
- Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
- Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective
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What are we reading next?
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.
The next book is number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker (2012) – Discussion begins March 19, 2018
Genre: Historical romance