I always forget how much I enjoy historical fiction until I read an exemplary researched work, and it reminds me. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is one of those astonishing works that make me realize exactly how much research and work can go into a novel.
In Orphan Train, Kline introduces us to our two protagonists, Molly, a teenager in the foster care system in 2011, and Niamh, a orphaned Irish nine year old who gets put on the “orphan train” in 1929 so that she can become part of a new family after a tragic fire kills hers.
These orphan trains sound awful, let me tell you. The Children’s Aid Society, a Christian-based society that “helps” orphans, piling orphans from NYC, in Niamh’s case, onto train, making stops at Midwestern or Western train stations. At these stations, the children are offered up to the masses for “free.” To promote the fostering of these children, the social workers say things like they are “‘strong, healthy, good for farm work and helping around the house.'” If we can’t pick up from this announcement what these children are to society in 1929, Molly is conveniently being taught in her history class about indenture servitude. The fact is that while some end up with good homes and adoption, most end up abused and mistreated in their new “family.”
Molly meets Niamh, who has become Vivian Daly, when Molly is sentenced to community service for trying to steal Jane Eyre from the library. Molly works to help Vivian clean out her attic for her community service, going through boxes from Vivian’s 91 years of life. As they work, Molly and Vivian talk about the items, and Molly decides to ask Vivian to become the focus of a research project at school, giving her the opportunity to hear more about Vivian’s experiences, including mistreatment by families similar to Molly’s own experiences in the foster care system.
Kline portrays Molly as a kid who is really smart, but her lot in life has made her cynical and bitter. She encourages everyone’s suspicions of her as the typical “bad girl” persona that she acquires through her Goth look. Molly acknowledges this has become a character for her to play and not really who she is. But she uses it to keep people back after she is bounced from foster home to foster home since the death of her father. This character she has created is on the verge of becoming who she really is until she meets Vivian. As Vivian shares her experience on the orphan train and beyond with Molly, a connection is made between the two orphans.
I really enjoyed this novel because Kline made me care about both Molly and Vivian. I wanted to know what happened to Vivian, how she came to be successful and independent, and I wanted to believe that this success would translate to Molly, who is sensitive despite trying to portray herself as a badass. Of course, this is a commentary about how the foster care system hasn’t changed all that much since the time of orphan trains, since Molly is bounced back and forth between foster families, not all of whom are stellar.
It made me think about many students whom I have taught who have been in the foster system; all of a sudden I realized that I had no idea what fears and disappointments they must have gone through in their lives, things with which I can empathize but not really know. I felt proud of those whom I know have succeeded and agony for those whom I know did not. I hope that going into the next school year, I will remember this book and remember to have compassion for teenagers who seem to have a tough outer shells but are really just babies on the inside.
So, I would definitely suggest this book, my friends. It made me cry, but in a good way because I cared, ya know? 🙂
Until next time, my dears, enjoy this wonderfully thorough piece of historical fiction!