Book Review: Orphan Train

November 26, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Young Adult (FYI if you're going to share this with a young person--there is some strong language from Molly. It fits her character, but you may want to discuss it with your friend/student/child in accordance with your values about profanity.)
Story-within-a-story, historical fiction, contemporary
I listened to the Audible audiobook narrated by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren
You might like this book if you are interested in the Orphan Trains that ran from large East Coast cities to the Midwest from the 1850s to the 1920s. You may also be interested if you enjoy stories of overcoming, redemption, the importance of family or are sympathetic to the realities faced by foster children and orphans.

The Orphan Train is a novel dealing with an interesting and somewhat heartbreaking part of American History. From the Children's Aid Society website:
An estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City in the 1850s. The children ranged in age from about six to 18 and shared a common grim existence. Homeless or neglected, they lived in New York City's streets and slums with little or no hope of a successful future. Their numbers were large - an estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City in the 1850s. Charles Loring Brace, the founder of The Children's Aid Society, believed that there was a way to change the futures of these children. By removing youngsters from the poverty and debauchery of the city streets and placing them in morally upright farm families, he thought they would have a chance of escaping a lifetime of suffering.
He proposed that these children be sent by train to live and work on farms out west. They would be placed in homes for free but they would serve as an extra pair of hands to help with chores around the farm. They wouldn't be indentured. In fact, older children placed by The Children's Aid Society were to be paid for their labors.
The Orphan Train Movement lasted from 1853 to the early 1900s and more than 120,000 children were placed. This ambitious, unusual and controversial social experiment is now recognized as the beginning of the foster care concept in the United States.
Author Christina Baker Kline successfully blends the story of a modern foster child, Molly, with the story of a survivor of the Orphan Trains. Tough-minded, edgy Molly is 17 when she meets Vivian, an elegant, elderly widow, and, in order to fulfill some community service hours, Molly helps clean out Vivian's attic. Along the way, these two individuals, seemingly from different worlds, find that they have things in common. As Molly and Vivian learn each other's stories, their own experiences start to come into focus.

I found both threads compelling, with Molly's story being gritty, realistic and told from the perspective of a jaded teen, and Vivian's story being told through the aged and wistful eyes of a woman with much to forgive but also to regret.

Kline manages both voices deftly and creates characters that stand their ground in each world. I liked that. I cared about all the main characters, and the writing is solid and well-paced.

In addition to the good storytelling, I liked this book for opening my eyes to a bit of history of which I was heretofore unaware. I have long been interested in the lives of fostered and orphaned children, mainly because in the town where I grew up is a children's home with a long history. I was close to a boy who lived there. He had a very difficult life and I was always impressed by his unabashedly positive outlook on life. I remember understanding more and more as we got older that my life was deeply, dramatically different than his.

Somewhat similar to what I knew from my friend's life, there are some seriously tragic episodes in this tale, and while I don't know for sure whether or not everything was based on histories from actual riders of the Orphan Trains, I can full well imagine that kind of aching sadness being part of the lives of these children. It's not easy to think about, but that's one reason this is a valuable book to me.

I'm always glad when a story reminds me of things I once felt deeply or reminds me to look past my own reality.

1 comment

  1. I read this book about a year ago. I knew nothing about this part of history. It was hard to imagine. Well told story.


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