by Christina Baker Kline
The first orphan train book I read was James Magnusson's 1979 novel, Orphan Train. Before then I'd never heard the stories, but by the 1990s orphans and their train experiences had become common knowledge, made public by a spate of novels for both adult and young readers, with occasional nonfiction first-person accounts.
In Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline reports that between the 1850s and the early 1920s, an estimated 250,000 homeless children were relocated from cities such as Boston and New York City mostly to the Midwest, in a welfare movement led by the Children's Aid Society and, later, the Foundling Hospital in New York. Some may not be aware of the wide-ranging scope of the orphan-train movement, and this will come as a surprise.
Orphans were put on the trains to find new families in the West; they were paraded before townsfolk in small towns, and some were chosen to be farm hands and household servants; others re-boarded the trains and went to the next towns. Those that repeatedly re-boarded the train sometimes ended up in Texas. Riding these trains was a grim experience, and reading about it was often equally so.
Vivian, featured in Orphan Train, wrote late in the novel, "This bad thing happened, and this—and I found myself on a train—and this bad thing happened, and this..." Vivian was an Irish girl (counselors say her ethnicity and red hair worked against her) whose family, so she believed, perished in a fire. On the train, Vivian cared for an infant named Carmine, who was later taken out of her arms by new parents, and she met Dutchy, a street boy as hardened as she.
Kline deftly relieves the grim monotony in Orphan Train by introducing a second story, that of Molly, a foster teenager in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Vivian, now a rich ninety-year-old widow, lives alone in a huge mansion. Molly, a Penobscot Indian whose dad died in an accident and whose mom retreated into a world of drugs, is rebellious and anti-social, hiding behind a Goth manner and appearance with streaked, spiky hair and outrageous makeup. Molly is arrested for stealing a copy of Jane Eyre from the public library. (It was, she says later, the most battered of three copies and she figured no one would miss it, to which Vivian responds they should have given her an award.) Molly ends up in court, faced with either juvvie or community service. She is given the latter, and assigned to help Vivian clear out her attic.
The grim story of Vivian is interrupted by frequent flash forwards to the story of Vivian and Molly. At first Molly resents the chores. Gradually, with Vivian exerting no pressure or control, Molly's attitude begins to change. She does well in school; she looks forward to Vivian.s visits. And she discovers that, with her computer skills, she can help Vivian unlock secrets of the past she thought forever gone.
No spoilers here; both Vivian's early train riding life and Molly's contemporary life take dramatic changes which eventually find Molly living with Vivian, ushering Vivian into the computer age. Each has wrought a great change in the other.
Orphan Train gets off to a slow start, but the reader who stays with it through grim train rides and separations from loved ones that break hearts will be reassured that sometimes life does work out for the best. Orphan Train is, above all, a novel about redemption, beautifully written in flawless prose.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Born in England and raised in New England, Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. She served as Writer in Residence at Fordham University for four years and has received several writing fellowships. Visit her website.
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