I remember at the age of 10 or so reading a novel about the late-19th- and early 20th-century orphan trains, which took children and babies from East Coast slums and brought them to the Midwest, where they were given an opportunity for a potentially prosperous new life in the fresh rural air. Not until I read Christina Baker Kline's book, however, did I realize just how romanticized this version was. ORPHAN TRAIN is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting story about this historical phenomenon.
"Readers who are unfamiliar with this episode in American history might be surprised to learn about the hardships and be struck by the parallels between Niamh/Vivian's experience nearly a hundred years ago and the foster care system today."
The novel starts in the present day, on the coast of Maine, as 17-year-old Molly Ayer is assigned to do 50 hours of community service as punishment for attempting to steal a school library book. Molly, a foster child who has a particularly tenuous and stressful relationship with her most recent foster mother, is worried about being sent away. So her boyfriend's mother, who cleans house for an old lady, Vivian Daly, suggests that Molly help Vivian clean out the boxes of old stuff that are clogging half of the woman's attic.
Molly is not sure what to expect, or what Vivian will think of her. She has a Goth sensibility with the looks to match, including many piercings and tattoos. At first, her meetings with Vivian are hours to endure, but soon she finds herself absorbed by Vivian's story and astonished by the connections to her own life.
Vivian, who immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a young girl, was originally named Niamh. When her entire family is killed in a fire in 1929, nine-year-old Niamh is turned over to a children's charity and put on an orphan train, sent to Minnesota in the hopes of finding a new home. Like Molly, though, Niamh's road to a loving home is anything but easy. After having made a fast friend on the journey west, Niamh is separated from him when she is not chosen at the first orphan train stop in Minneapolis. Instead, she arrives in a small Minnesota town, where she starts on a years-long journey toward finding something even remotely resembling a home. She's neglected, abused, overworked, underfed, and treated as slave labor. Only as a young woman is she finally able to find peace and something that looks like home.
As Molly learns Vivian's story, the parallels to her own story become more and more clear. She comes to see Vivian as both a confidante and a friend, someone who can help her and who she possibly can help, too.
Readers who are unfamiliar with this episode in American history might be surprised to learn about the hardships and be struck by the parallels between Niamh/Vivian's experience nearly a hundred years ago and the foster care system today. The afterword includes historical information, including a number of photographs, that will also help bring the period to life.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 5, 2013