Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline follows parallel stories of two orphans: Molly and Vivian.
Molly’s present day story is told alongside of Vivian’s, an Irish emigrant who came to the U.S. during the years before the Great Depression.
Molly loses her father to a car accident, her mother to drugs, and is placed in the foster system as a young child.
Vivian loses her family in an apartment fire in NYC and is placed on an orphan train with hundreds of other children and shipped off to the Midwest to find a permanent home.
Their stories converge in Maine in 2011 when Molly, a 17 year old wannabe juvenile delinquent, ends up serving community service hours by helping 90 year old Vivian with a personal project.
The book mainly focuses on Vivian’s journey and how her experience on the orphan train shaped the rest of her life. Molly’s story is sprinkled throughout and provides a contrast for the reader.
I’d give you more of a synopsis, but I’d give too much of the story away. A one dimensional overview seems appropriate anyway because, as a whole, I found this book to be a very shallow read. In places.
In the places where it is the most gut wrenching, I found myself wanting the author to go deeper. I wanted to know how the characters were feeling on more than a primal level and she never delivered. Or if she did, it was only in brief moments. Not enough to really make this book all that it could have, and really SHOULD have, been to do justice to the real life children who rode orphan trains and have also experienced abuse throughout the foster system.
Which brings me to another complaint: there was so much bad in the people represented as foster and adoptive parents.
I know both, in real life, and while I’m sure that there are those who are only in it for what they can get out of it, I don’t think that it’s fair to put such a blemish over the entire sectors of these parents as a whole. Which it felt like Kline did.
I try to be so careful when judging books. As a writer myself, I find that I am becoming increasingly critical of writing styles and that can hinder the reading of a book that I might otherwise have enjoyed just a few short years ago. Maybe my tastes are refining. Maybe I’m becoming a book snob.
There was just a lot lacking in the story, and I’ll address some of that now.
BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION
I was not alone in my overall opinions about Orphan Train. I think all of us were glad we read it, because it taught us all about a real life movement than most of us had never even heard of before.
We generally felt that so much could have been brought out about the real life orphan trains and that the modern day story about Molly sounded like something an editor suggested to bring “relevance” to the story. Make it more relatable to present day readers.
The book read almost as though Kline wrote Vivian’s story and then went back and added Molly’s. It felt…..disjointed.
Another complaint was that there was a scene of sexual assault in the book. And it was completely overlooked in terms of how it affected the victim, a major character. Granted, sexual assault is a topic that is swept under the rug all the time, but it felt like a missed opportunity to give readers further insight into the psyche of the character who experienced it.
One book club member said it felt like it was only used for some added drama, and she was tired of seeing it used in books and movies as a means for just giving some new type of suspense.
Orphan Train had not one loving mother figure character. And we all felt as though that was a terrible shame. After some reflection, none of the men really seemed all that great either. And the whole thing just ended up having a very cynical aftertaste for me.
But before you think we just all LOATHED this book, I want to say this: I don’t just judge a book by what it says directly (or doesn’t say, in this case) but also by whether or not it leads me to other lines of thought and reflection. And this book did that.
Vivian is 90 years old. The community service project that Molly helps her with is cleaning out Vivian’s attic. This is how she learns about Vivian’s experience on the orphan train.
Here is a quote from the book where Molly is frustrated because Vivian is reluctant to throw out any of her old stuff:
Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process – in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.
Knowing how my own 84 year old grandmother is about her “stuff” and what it was like to move 30+ years of it to my parent’s home when she moved in with them 2 years ago, I find that this story softened me a bit.
The things around us often represent some time in our lives that was significant, if only to us. Who am I to tell her what she should and shouldn’t keep?
Also, this quote reminds me of therapy. “Touching each item, naming and identifying….” Sometimes we have to do that to heal from past hurts. Put a name on them. Call it what it was, what it is. And then we can move on.
I found these thoughts to be profound. And I find that my love for peoples’ stories continue. Even when I feel like they could have been told better.