Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Between 1853 and 1929, some 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, and/or homeless children were relocated to homes across the United States via Orphan Trains. Many of the children who were adopted were used as free labor, and the stories rarely had happy endings.
This was the premise behind Kline’s novel, which follows the story of Niemh aka Dorothy aka Vivian, an Irish born orphan who was sent on an orphan train from New York out west. Paralleling her story is the story of Molly, a 17 year-old orphan in the foster care system whose path runs across Vivian’s. The novel connects these stories of these orphan girls, who, even though they grew up decades apart, have similar experiences.
Overall, I was pleased with the book. It was gripping, the characters were well developed, and I’m a big fan of split narratives, especially across space and time. I felt for Vivian, I wanted her to find happiness, and I enjoyed her story of hardship and growing up as an orphan, without a place to call home or people to treat her nicely. She ended up going through multiple families before finding one that stuck, and the experiences with the failed families were disgusting, sad, and pitiful. I felt for Vivian, and hoped those people would get was coming to them.
Some things I didn’t like were the stereotypical “evil” families (particularly women), the melodrama and predictability of forthcoming events, and the lack of emphasis on the orphan trains for which the novel was named. Sure, she goes on the train, but she gets picked up fairly quickly (considering), and her life is hard, but in the end it’s all like “well, if I hadn’t gone on the train, all this wouldn’t have happened to me, so I’m thankful”. I also felt like some of the plotlines were too convenient, particularly the one with Dutchy.
As for Molly’s story, I wanted to know more about her background, and as much as I enjoyed her transformation and camaraderie with Vivian, it happened pretty fast, and I didn’t really get why she’d had so much trouble with foster parents (besides them just being “mean”). Her actions were very teenager-ish, nothing for which to kick her out.
It’s a bit Anne of Green Gables, which I like (Anne is one of my favorites!), though with more drama and heartache.
Another book that deals with orphan trains is The Chaperone, which I’ve read, and because of which I kept having déjà vu when reading Orphan Train.
Overall, it was an interesting read that really gripped me (I read it in about a day).