I'm behind on my book reviews (like everything else!) so it's time for another...
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, set in coastal Maine in 2011, is the story of two unlikely friends, Vivian, a wealthy ninety-one year old and Molly a seventeen year old foster child. Both have been shuffled from home to home; Molly in over a dozen foster care placements, and Vivian, years ago as a poor Irish immigrant from the streets of New York City on an orphan train to the midwest.
Molly is seventeen and soon to be too old for foster care; after attempting to steal a school library book, she is given fifty hours of community service. Molly is not on the best of terms with her current foster mother and is afraid of being sent back into the "system". Her boyfriend's mother cleans house for a senior (Vivian) and when she suggests that Molly could work off her hours by helping clean out the old lady's attic, Molly reluctantly agrees.
It's not long before Molly becomes enthralled with Vivian's story of her younger years, and begins to see the parallels with her own, realizing they have much in common. Vivian's childhood was heart-wrenching. After immigrating to New York City from Ireland, and losing her entire family in a fire, she is turned over to a children's charity who put her on an orphan train to Minnesota. There she endures abuse, neglect and is overworked, treated basically as slave labour, as she passes through several "homes" (and I use that term very loosely) in her quest for a loving family. I won't give away any more of the story, but suffice it to say this was a compelling read.
I knew nothing of the orphan trains, which existed between 1854-1929. Children were told they were lucky to be on the train, to have a chance at a much better life, a good wholesome life in the fresh country air. Reality was often quite different, as many children were abused and treated as little more than farm labourers/slaves. "Prospective parents" met the train at the station, looking for a child to adopt (older boys were usually the first to be selected.) The child could be taken for a ninety day free trial period, and then "adopted" (more like indentured servitude, I'd say) or returned if found unsuitable. A short history of the real orphan trains, complete with photographs, follows the acknowledgements at the end. I was surprised to learn that more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were transported on these trains. A sad and little known piece of history.
Orphan Train is a good solid read, a compelling story that you cannot help but feel emotionally invested in. Both Vivian and Molly are strong well developed characters and the author has done an impressive job of knitting their lives, past and present, together. The ending is heart-warming. Kline has written a fine piece of historical fiction. I'll be looking for more of her writing.
Every book contains a life. The more we read, the more we live.