Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Fiction, 304 pages
Release date: April 2, 2013
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
FTC Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher.
As a fan of history, I was surprised to discover there is an aspect of American History I’d never heard of: Orphan Trains. Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of orphaned and abandoned children were collected and shipped to the Midwest; many ending up in situations not much different than indentured servitude.
During this time, there was no social safety net or child labor laws. It was a social experiment that was intended to improve the lives of destitute children. It may have worked for some, but in the long run, were these children better off? They children had already suffered a great deal and now were shipped off to places and families as foreign to them as their pasts and culture were to their adoptive families. As a real life rider Pat Thiessen noted, “. . . I always felt they were not my people. And they weren’t.”
This sound eerily similar to the assimilation efforts made by the American government when they forced Native American children to attend boarding schools in order to be “Americanized”.
Connecting the this past to the present, the author brings together Molly, a Native American and a product of a difficult childhood and multiple foster homes and and Vivian, an orphan train rider.
Molly and Vivian are separated by age but not much else and discover this while working together to clear Vivian’s attic. Instead of removing old items, memories are re-lived and shared; commonalities found; self-identity and self-worth developed and eventually, accepted.
When Vivian describes how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers Molly nods. She knows full well what it’s like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb. After a while you don’t know what your own needs are anymore. You’re grateful for the slightest hint of kindness, and then, as you get older, suspicious. Why would anyone do anything for you without expecting something in return? And anyway – most of the time they don’t. More often than not, you see the worst of people. You learn that most adults lie. That most people only look out for themselves. That you are only as interesting as you are useful to someone.
Chapters of the story vary between two times – the past of Vivian and the present of Molly. It was a challenge according to the author, but she (with the help of a wonderful editor) makes it work.
Even though there are two storylines, they work together to give a reader the sense that they are reading a single story. It is a story about relationships between people and cultures. How the perceptions and prejudices of others can undermine someone’s self-identity, but not destroy it.
Vivian and Molly are both faced with situations that at one point in their lives, they find it difficult to trust anyone. But ultimately, good people outweigh the bad and they learn it’s okay to trust.
Vivian’s life has been quiet and ordinary. As the years have passed, her losses have piled one on another like layers of shale: even if her mother lived, she would be dead now; the people who adopted her are dead; her husband in dead; she has no children. Except for the company of the woman she pays to take care of her, she is as alone as a person can be.
She has never tried to find out what happened to her family – her mother or her relatives in Ireland. But over and over, Molly begins to understand as she listens to the tapes, Vivian has come back to the idea that the people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most ordinary moments. They’re with us in the grocery store, as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles.
At less than three hundred pages, this will be a great read for anyone under any circumstance. The chapters are short enough that if you have to put it down to get off at the next stop, or the flight landed, or your lunch hour is over, it shouldn’t be a problem. Of course wanting to put it down is another matter. At no time did I ever feel like there was fluff or filler. Every paragraph and chapter worked and before I knew it, I was reading the last chapter.
I know there is a lot of talk going on about this book, and it is well-deserved. I’m so glad I was able to get a review copy, but I assure you, I would have gladly paid for a copy. In fact, it not only goes on my “recommendation” list but on my “books to give as a gift” list.