by Christina Baker Kline
published by HarperCollins
The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.
Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.
Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are. (from Goodreads)
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I love historical fiction, but this seemed like a strange premise. As I started reading, however, I realized that this was a part of history that I had not heard of before-the Orphan Trains. I knew nothing about thousands of orphaned or destitute children from New York were shipped to the Midwest to be taken in and hopefully adopted by families. This book seamlessly weaves together the story of Vivian and Molly. Molly is a 17 year old foster child who has been bounced around the system for years. She is almost aged out, and is looking at a very uncertain future. When a small misstep almost lands her in juvie, she accepts a community service sentence to help clean out 91 year old Vivian’s attic. While working together, she learns Vivian’s story. As a young girl, Vivian immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the late 1920’s. When a fire claims the lives of her entire family, the Children’s Aid Society steps in and places Vivian along with other orphans onto trains bound for the Midwest. There, they will hopefully find families that want to adopt them. Unfortunately, more often than not, these families were looking for free labor. The story alternated between Molly in the present day, and back flashes of Vivian’s experiences.
I really loved learning about the orphan trains and seeing history unfold through Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian’s eyes. I also learned quite a bit about the Penobscot Indians. I thought this was a very well written, engaging story and would strongly recommend reading it. I am so glad She Reads picked such a great selection for the May Book Club. Please stop over there and see what others thought of this book.
Rating 5 out of 5
“I love you,” he writes again and again. “I can’t bear to live without you. I’m counting the minutes until I see you.” The words he uses are the idioms of popular songs and poems in the newspaper. And mine to him are no less cliched. I puzzle over the onionskin, trying to spill my heart onto the page. But I can only come up with the same words, in the same order, and hope the depth of feeling beneath them gives them weight and substance. I love you. I miss you. Be careful. Be safe.”
― Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train