This is one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read! THE ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline, is, quite simply, magnificent.
A very good customer slapped this book in my hands and told me I better read it. I bought it and have been holding onto it for a few months.
The novel features two women. Vivian is ninety-on, living alone in Maine in a huge home on the ocean. Molly also lives in Maine, but she is a teenage misfit that has been taken in by a family who barely tolerates her. What do these two women have in common? They are both orphans.
The prologue of THE ORPHAN TRAIN is haunting. ” I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind.” “I am ninety-one years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.” This from Vivian as to her feelings about her life.
It is 2011. Molly is seventeen. She’s living with foster parents in Maine. To say the foster mother is not especially fond of Molly is an understatement. The foster father is the one who chose to become a foster parent, but even he can not keep the peace in this household much longer. Molly’s gotten herself in trouble. What has she done now? She tried to steal a library book and got caught. Now she’s duty-bound to fifty hours of service to keep from going to Juvie.
We already know Vivian is ninety-one. And that she lives alone. She has a helper who comes during the week. But she really wants someone to come help her wade through the trunks of “stuff” she’s been keeping tucked away in the attic for the twenty years she’s lived in the big house. So, she hears of Molly’s plight and hires her in to help. One thing Molly is really good at is organization. Little did either of them realize what a life-changing bond they would make.
The story returns to the years when Vivian is a child, 1929, and then forward. Is told in alternating chapters in time. So, we slowly discover what Vivian’s life was like spent as an orphan from the time she boarded the orphan train in New York City.
I knew the story was based on a true event. Or I should say events since there were many of these trains back in the day. But I had not heard of them until recently. Who knew such a hell could exist in this country? I find myself being a sponge and soaking up all the information I can find.
The power in this story comes from its strength. The strength of the characters, the research, and the writing. All stellar. Even more power comes when a story makes such an impression on a reader. I can not stress enough that you must read this novel. When I fall in love with a novel I become like a dog with a bone. I will dog everyone to read this with my every breath. It’s that important.
Imagine a train full of orphans, some infants, some toddlers, some gangly, and the saddest ones of all; the ten to sixteen year-olds. Those are the hardest to place. And these kids were told right out that they might not be chosen. They had to go with anyone who wanted them. Unless they were babies or toddlers they would certainly be used for manual labor. And then some.
Kline has used the story of Vivian to bring this most difficult situation to the forefront. She’s chosen to show us what may have happened to one of these children. Kline actually interviewed and met with many of the families of these children. And some of the actual men and women themselves. So these stories hold water. There are articles you can read in the NYT in that time frame. So much of history gets lost or swept under the rug. I’m so grateful to Kline for writing this important novel.
Even though much of this story is heart breaking, I found it to be extremely uplifting as well. And I am compelling all of you, even begging you, to make this novel your next read. You’ll be talking about it for years to come. And boy oh boy did I hit the jack pot with this one!