Between 1854 and 1929, some 200,000 orphans were shipped
from the East Coast to the Midwest to, it was hoped, find new homes.
Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train
is a historical novel that teaches us about that heretofore little
known occurrence in American history.
One of Kline’s two major characters, Irish immigrant Niamh, was 9 years old when most of her family died in a tenement fire in New York and she was shipped on an orphan train to Depression-era Minnesota. The other main character is 17-year-old Molly, a Penobscot Indian who has spent years in foster care after her father died in a car accident and her addict mother proved an incompetent parent.
In present-day Maine, where Niamh, renamed Vivian and now 91 years old, is living, Molly’s punishment for stealing a library book is 50 hours of community service: helping Vivian clean out her attic. As the two open boxes that spur memories of Vivian’s traumatic time bouncing from one foster family to another, they bond over their shared experience as unwanted children.
Kline’s portrayal of the treatment of the children who arrived on orphan trains is unvarnished. Some were genuinely cherished by couples wanting to add to their families, but many were sought as slave labor, as Vivian was in her first three placements before landing with a kindly couple. Molly is wise to the selfish motivations of the couple with whom she lives: you take in fosters, she accuses, for the money. Orphan Train is not a downer, however, because their shared hours bring Molly and Vivian to catharsis and a lovely intergenerational friendship. You feel certain that their relationship will grow as long as Vivian lives, and that as a result of it, Molly will replace her bitterness with optimism as she goes forward.
Orphan Train was an unexpected bestseller and is a selection of many classrooms and book clubs.
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