Vivian has never really talked about her experience on the train with anyone. It was shameful, she says. Too much to explain, too hard to believe. All those children sent on trains to the Midwest – collected off the streets of New York like refuse, garbage on a barge, to be sent far away as possible, out of sight. – from Orphan Train, page 169 -
At the beginning of the 19th century, children living in New York City (many from immigrant families) were removed from their families and relocated to settlements in the West. The idea of “orphan trains” was meant to provide children with families to care for them – but it also served a need for the families who took these children into their homes. Many children worked for their keep – in the fields, on farms, in shops – a form of indentured servitude. The orphan train movement ended in 1929 after placing upwards of 200,000 children in 48 states. There is a terrific article which discusses the orphan trains and their historical impact here.
Christina Baker Kline’s newest novel, Orphan Train, explores the lives of two women against the backdrop of the orphan train movement. Vivian Daly, an Irish immigrant, loses her family in a fire and ends up riding the orphan train into the Midwest and an uncertain future. Now she is in her nineties and looking back on a life that, although less than perfect, has shaped her into the woman she has become. Molly Ayer, a seventeen year old Native American foster child is struggling to find herself and her place in the world. These two characters come together in the novel and a friendship is forged.
Kline wrote her novel with two distinct points of view and moves back and forth from the late 1920s to present day. The concept of “portaging” is a key theme of the book: What would you take, what would you leave behind? Both women have physical objects they carry with them, but more importantly they must decide what experiences they will carry with them, and what will they let go of?
Other themes of the novel include family connections, abandonment, isolation, and the impact of cultural backgrounds on integrating into community.
Vivian is the more developed of the characters in the book – and it was her story that most compelled me to keep reading. Molly felt like a more “supportive” character to the overall narrative.
I read this book for a book club discussion and some readers felt the plot was a bit predictable. Although there were no “aha” moments, I found the narrative engaging and its predictability did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I also found the history of the orphan trains compelling. Kline’s prose is poignant and well researched. She captures the plight of America’s immigrant children in the early part of the 20th century well, revealing the poverty and loss they experienced in her heart-breaking tale.
Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find much to like in Orphan Train.