Worth A Read: Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline


The BUZZ: Bestselling novel based on historical accounts of a children’s welfare program, by the author of Bird in Hand. 

The GIST: In 1853, The Children’s Aid Society was founded by a wealthy Connecticut minister to help the thousands of orphaned kids living on the streets of New York City. The Society’s objective was to find loving homes for them all in the Midwest. Trains departed from NYC carrying hundreds of children at a time, from 1853 through the early twenties, when an organized foster care program began in the US. In Kline’s novel, Vivian is one these unfortunate children. Her Irish immigrant family is killed in a tenement fire, leaving her orphaned at nine. A passenger on a train headed west with other unlucky children, she is shuffled from one horrible household to another, experiencing hunger, neglect, and worse. The story reflects back and forth from her childhood to the present, where she is a wealthy widow living alone in a mansion on the bay in Maine. Her path crosses with Molly, a rebellious teenager navigating, without much luck, the present foster care system. Molly chooses to help Vivian clean out her attic as a service project, and the two connect over their similar backgrounds. Although they are from different generations, the two women understand one another, and share their stories completely.

The WRITING: Absorbing. Kline weaves two stories together seamlessly, without losing any momentum. Some of the events are predicable, but there are plenty of surprises to make up for it. We meet Vivian as an elderly woman, and then get glimpses into her tragic childhood that snap pieces of the puzzle into place, one at a time. Molly’s story is dismal as well, and we come to understand her actions and beliefs as we learn of her childhood. Kline has created two wonderful characters, women at different stages of life who have managed to thrive instead of just surviving unlucky twists of fate. They have suffered loss and endured injustices that could have broken their spirits. Instead, they move forward with courage and purpose to create whole lives, one step at a time. This is challenging for Vivian and Molly, as they have each spent much of their lives wondering where they belong, and if anyone cares about them. Kline examines what it means to be at home, in a place and time, and in one’s own skin.

BUY or BORROW? Borrow. This is a poignant, colorful story with an intriguing historical angle, perfect for the big screen. I’m sure it will end up there soon.

“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.”

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