Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline

Some people don't like to read fiction because they think it's all invented by the author. What they don't realize is that there is a huge amount of research that goes into writing the best fiction and there's a good chance that they'll learn something as they read. This is especially the case in historical fiction. There have been many historical fiction novels that have introduced me to aspects of history I had either never heard of or with which I had just the barest glancing familiarity. Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train is one such novel. Before reading it, I had no idea that orphaned and abandoned children from the overpopulated east were bundled onto trains and sent west to be adopted, stopping at town after town along the way to drop these children into new, and sometimes less desirable, lives.

Molly is a seventeen year old in foster care. She's been disappointed enough by the system that she's not going to count on this latest placement either and her new foster mom's attitude towards her just reinforces her aloof surliness. She opens herself up to very few people, not trusting them to be there for her or to care for her as a person. But she's more than just this untouchable, emotionally distant Goth teen. She's a girl who so loves the book Jane Eyre that she steals a battered, old copy from the library. But she gets caught and sentenced to community service. And this is where things start to look up for Molly because she gets to do community service by cleaning out decades of accumulated stuff in the attic of Vivian Daly, an elderly woman with an unbelievable history and more in common with Molly than the either of them can begin to imagine.

Interspersed with the story of this sad and hurting teenager in 2011, is the story of Niamh, a red-headed, freckle-faced, 9 year old Irish child living in New York City who loses her entire family in a tenement fire in the late 1920s. Without relatives willing to take her in and in a city prejudiced against the Irish, she was dumped on the Children's Aid Society. When the Society started shipping children west on so called orphan trains, young Niamh was aboard. The infants on the trains were often adopted into loving families and raised as the family's children. Many of the older boys on board were chosen for their ability to help with farm work while older girls became nannies or maids. A visibly Irish Niamh was passed over again and again at each of the train stops until she was finally chosen by a man and his wife who renamed her Dorothy and only took her into their home as an unpaid laborer in their woman's clothier business.

And so the two stories continue alternating with each other, Dorothy's life and continued hardship and Molly working for Vivian Daly, coming to know and like the upright and interesting old woman. Working at her community service and learning the difficult story behind Vivian's life, Molly blooms, starting to feel as if she is important in someone else's life, and even volunteering to help Vivian look into her past and discover the truth of her life with the help of modern technology.

The information about orphan trains and the lives that the children who were transported on them lived was fascinating stuff. Kline has done a good job researching both the situations that led to the trains and the hardships that many of the children faced even once they reached a new life. The endurance of children like Niamh/Dorothy, because they had no other choice, is simply heatbreaking. The historical aspect of this novel was far more engrossing than the modern portion though, making the novel slightly unbalanced. It is a sad commentary that the failures of the foster care system for Molly are not unexpected or unbelievable but as such, they come off as a bit clich├ęd. Although the ending and its revelations are not terribly surprising, they are, in this day of information only moments away at your fingertips, completely realistic and perfect to wrap up the story of these two lonely people searching for connection and care in their lives.

2 comments:

  1. I heard lots of good things about this book. I am curious about reading it this year.

    ReplyDelete

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