Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline | Rating: ★★★★★
"Time constricts and flattens, you know. It’s not evenly weighted. Certain moments linger in the mind and others disappear."
Have you ever read a book that sticks with you for months after you’ve originally read it? Of course — all avid book readers have. Whether that’s a classic or newly introduced novels like The Book Thief, we’ve all had them. For me, that book is Orphan Train — a fascinating tale of a bond that forms between a teenager and an elderly widow who have a bit more in common than the teenager previously thought. It is almost impossible not to learn something from this interesting time in our worlds history.
One trigger warning is that there is a small section of the story that does feature the topic of sexual abuse in foster homes.
Our story opens to the life of seventeen year old Molly Ayer, who has gotten into some trouble and has landed a gig in the form of community service to prevent her from ending up in Juvie. We come to find that she lives with a foster family she isn’t particularly fond of (and a foster mother who is definitely not fond of her) and get a pretty decent glimpse into her life before foster care as well as her everyday life. Her narrative isn’t the best and she isn’t as well developed or believable as Vivian, but it’s still decently done.
The real treasure in this novel is the story we’re told in flashbacks about the elderly woman she helps clean for: known in present day as Vivian Daly. Vivian proves to us that through tragedy our strength really does appear in time.
Her tale consists of tragedy — a time after moving to the USA, from
Ireland, she loses her entire family in a fire and is sent to ride the Orphan Train.
For those who aren’t familiar on what the Orphan Train is exactly, it
ran from the mid 1800s right until 1929 and served as a transportation
from the East Coast to the Midwest. Its task was simple: to find
abandoned/orphaned children a new home. Conditions, of course, weren’t
very high up on the list — but for many of these children, this was
their only hope at finding a family.
Onto Vivian’s story — we find that her birth name is Niamh Power, pronounced: Neev.
Upon finding out her family’s fate, she is sent to Children’s Aid and
eventually lands a spot on an Orphan Train. During her time as a
passenger, she takes on helping take care of a baby: Carmine and
eventually finds a friend in an unlikely place. This friend is the
sometimes troublemaking boy named ‘Dutchy’. They quickly form an
adorable, caring bond that feels almost like a family to Niamh.
Of course, things change when each are sent to different homes,
leaving Niamh heartbroken and lonely once more. It takes her several
homes, each with unfortunate and uncomfortable outcomes, before she
finds something close to a family and as she grows up, she eventually
legally takes on the name Vivian.
As she grows up and time goes on, during a night out with some girlfriends she comes across a stroke of luck and (spoiler alert!)
is reunited with Dutchy. For the first time in ages, you see an
incredible amount of happiness form for her and their connection is
restored and grows. Their lovestory isn’t the longest but it is
certainly something special and will forever hold a place in Niamh, now
Through Vivian’s tragic backstory, we learn just how complicated
things were back then for children and just how much our past shapes us
into who we are. This is an important lesson for Molly and our readers,
who will grow to love this piece of literature brought to us by
Christina Baker Kline.
My only complaint, aside from how the character Molly was sometimes
handled, is that the story is far too short. I want more on Niamh, more
on Dutchy, more on Molly and these lives. Even so, the story is a quick
read that will get your mind going and will provide a bit of a look at
history. You’ll fall in love with Niamh as a child, you’ll fall in love
with her in her adult form as Vivian.
I would recommend this book to anybody in a heartbeat.