The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Here are two totally different women, one about 90 years of age and another a junior in high school, yet they unknowingly are kindred spirits due to a common difficult childhood.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline focuses on the practice of “adoption” via a train ride from the East throughout the Midwest where families could choose an orphan child to take home. These new “family members” were often selected to be servants or unpaid hired hands to help on the farm. While this entire concept seems unbelievable by today’s standards, this practice began in 1854 and continued as late as 1929. Documented over the years, many survivors or their families maintain a blog or communicate with each other over the Internet. While some placements were fortuitous, too many created unbelievable hardships which these orphans had to endure.

The main focus of The Orphan Train is on Niamh aka Dorothy aka Vivian whose family is put on a boat leaving Ireland in the hopes of finding prosperity in New York City. Unfortunately, her father still drinks and her bitter, jaded mother is pregnant again, so their existence in the crowded flat is less than ideal. Yet Niamh feels lost when her family literally goes up in smoke and she finds herself a ward of the Children’s Aid Society on the Orphan Train going west to find a family willing to take a chance on a red headed Irish girl of nine or ten. The only thing she has from her past is the cross her Irish grandmother bestowed upon her before giving them all the boot. Despite being used to hardship, her new life is one of servitude in Minnesota, first to a seamstress, then to a large family of wild children, before she runs away from a situation which could only worsen if she stayed. That she survives the ordeal is miraculous, but through a series of happenstances, Niamh finds herself a comfortable life although not free from heartache.

Then there is Molly Ayer who also has a keepsake necklace, hers consisting of three charms on a chain which her Penobscot Indian father gave her just prior to his accidental death. Her mother, due to her own issues, is unable to care for her daughter and thus Molly ends up in the foster care system, for all practical purposes an orphan. A difficult teen who gets in trouble for minor infractions purposely rebelling with her piercings and goth appearance, she finds herself doing community service at Vivian Daly’s home, helping the old woman clean out her attic. At first the whole task is a chore, especially since the boxes full of artifacts containing memories from a prior era are simply unpacked, examined, and reboxed. Yet each item has a story and in just a short bit of time, the bitter Molly discovers that she is not the only one with a tragic youth. As part of a school assignment, Molly records Vivian’s tale and the story unfolds along with the items in the attic as the book moves seamlessly from past to present and back again. Through the telling, a relationship develops which soothes them both and makes for a satisfying reading experience, despite the quick wrap up and open ended conclusion.

While I did have a copy of the book for reference (I especially appreciated the photographs and list of resources), I actually listened to the majority of the story on tape (CD) performed by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren. I felt the Scottish accent of the young Niamh, which disappeared over time, added a dimension to the tale which my imagination couldn’t provide with simply reading the written words.

Although Kline used some exaggerated stereotypes to forward the plot, the emphasis (and obvious research) on the historically accurate Orphan Train and its effects on the lives of children such as Niamh was a riveting subject. Four stars.

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One thought on “The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline”

  1. Somewhere in my childhood I heard of the orphan train theory…or at least of a train filled with orphans. Near my childhood farmhouse is a county actually named for orphans (in Spanish) as in: Orphan County. It breaks my heart to wonder if these kids were “adopted” out for servant work.

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