#2: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.  Two charitable institutions, the Children’s Aid Society and later, the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children, who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains that were labeled “orphan trains” or “baby trains”. This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.

Thanks, Wikipedia!

Orphan Train

Almost-18 year old Molly Ayer doesn’t have the most awesome life.  She’s been bounced around the foster system for years and her latest placement is falling apart.  A stolen book might be the end of everything.  In need of community service to avoid juvie, she finds herself in an attic.

91 year old Vivian Daly has hung on to much of her life, boxing things up and storing them away.  Coaxed into helping a needy kid, and not knowing that this is community service for a stolen book, she lets Molly into her home.  Molly dreads spending time with the old woman, although does like the idea of organizing and purging decades of memories.

As they go through each box and Molly tries to create some sort of system, it’s clear that Vi has no intention of throwing anything away.  Molly slowly gets Vi to talk about her things, and as the two begin to get comfortable with each other, Vi opens up about her past.

The main story in this book is Vi’s life and there is a lot of criticism from readers that Molly wasn’t needed.  Vi’s story is told in flashbacks while she and Molly go through the attic.  Molly gets her own chapters that mirror some of Vi’s experiences, but the book could have worked with just one of the stories.  Like most people, I was more interested in Vi than Molly, although I did like seeing Molly open up and begin to trust Vi.  She also brings in technology and is able to research Vi’s life.  If this was only Vi’s story, the ending would have been much different.

I really enjoyed Vi’s story.  I didn’t know anything about the Orphan Trains and as she stood and waited for a family to choose her, I had a feeling it was going to end badly.  This is not Anne of Green Gables.  Like Molly, her placements don’t work out.  She is rarely safe, and yet when given the chance, she latches on to hope and works to make her own luck.

I especially liked her story from her late teens into adulthood.  A chance meeting changes everything and happiness and contentment fill the pages.  Of course the reader is also cringing and looking for any signs of foreshadowing while at the same time waiting for the next fight in Molly’s life.

I didn’t love the ending, especially because Molly’s story is sort of abandoned in favor of a nice closure for Vi.  Again, if Molly’s character wasn’t there, this book would have had to end in a very different way.

My main complaint with the book is that no matter how awesome Vi is, I had a hard time believing the strength of her mind and body.  I know that there are a lot of kick ass elders out there, but for a 91 year old woman, she had no problems with speech or sight.  I had a hard time with her picking up a laptop for the first time and being able to navigate the internet so quickly.  Yes, a lot of people’s grandmothers are very computer literate, but it seemed silly.

This is a great introduction to the Orphan Trains.  I want to learn more and I’m fascinated with how people have been able to find friends and family members who they were separated from.  Not all of the kids were orphans and not all of them stayed with their siblings.  There are organizations working to document the passengers and later generations are finding families they never knew about.

I liked this one a lot.  It made for a good book group meeting, especially when discussing if Molly was really necessary.

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2 responses to “#2: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

  1. How did you not discuss how ridiculous it is that she gave her baby up for adoption!?

  2. I was torn on that. One one hand, it made sense because she had lost so much that I could understand why she was afraid to keep anything. She probably had some form of trauma symptoms and the thought of having to be in charge of another human after losing all these other people was just too much.

    OTOH, I felt like it was a weird plot point to end the book and give Molly something to do.

    It did make me wonder if it was a common practice to give a kid up in times of war and death because the thought of trying to do it on your own was too much. Knowing your kid could have a life with two parents who weren’t in mourning might make sense when you’re in your own fog of grief and pregnancy hormones.

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