Christina Baker Kline lets you know that this girl has a story to tell. What a sad looking girl on the cover. What or who could make her so sad? Before reading this book, I didn't know that orphan trains were a part of history. It's really sad to know that they existed.
From the late 1850s to the 1920s, orphaned children in overcrowded cities were put on trains to be "adopted" in cities throughout the U.S. I say "adopted" because it really seemed like this was a form of indentured servitude. I'm sure some children were placed with loving families, but some were not. Some were put to work. Some worked until they collapsed. Some went hungry. Some were abused. Some were made to feel like they were a burden. In this book (which is fiction), Irish immigrant Vivian Daly was one of those children. At 91 years old, the painful memories of the past still haunt her.
Troubled teenager Molly Ayer knows what it's like to feel alone and unwanted. The 17-year-old has bounced around several foster homes, and is about to age out of the system. A stupid mistake could force her out of her latest placement. But 50 hours of community service could save her butt. Enter Vivian Daly, who needs to clean out her massive attic. It's not the most conventional of community service projects, but in the process Vivian and Molly learn not just about each other but themselves. There is a huge generational gap, but they can relate to each other more than people their own age.
Vivian was born Niamh Power in Ireland. Niamh, her parents, and siblings came to New York in search of a better life. But tragedy ruined all of that. A fire wiped out most of her family. Niamh's sister Maisie might have survived the fire, but no one will tell her the truth. Instead she is forced into an orphanage and eventually an "orphan train." All of the children on these trains are forced to stifle their personalities. They can no longer be themselves. They have to impress potential adoptive families. Children who speak up are perceived to be bad. You can't have an opinion. You can only speak when spoken to. You can only do what you're told. Niamh does as she is told. In the process she is no longer Niamh, her new employer...I mean "family" renames her Dorothy. Any ties to her former life have to be pushed deep down.
After two horrible foster homes, Niamh is slowly disappearing. When she is finally in a good home, Niamh has to change again. Now she is Vivian, a replacement for a couple who lost their child. But can she finally be herself? What if she says or does the wrong thing? What if she is sent away again? She can't relax. She always has to have her guard up, something Molly can relate to. Molly has bounced around several foster homes. Everyone assumes she's a problem kid. Few people take the time to get to know Molly. Even Molly's boyfriend, Jack, doesn't truly know what it's like to be her. Vivian and Molly both know what it's like to be judged based on their appearances and their family history. They would rather be judged by their actions and their character.
Vivian and Molly form an unlikely friendship, but in this book it works. They can be honest with each other. They can let their guards down. It's ok to be vulnerable in front of each other. Their friendship makes the world a little less lonely. As much as I loved this book, I felt like the ending was a little abrupt. There is certainly hope for the future, but it felt like this book could have benefited from one or two additional chapters.
I've never read a book by Christina Baker Kline, but I will in the future. With Orphan Train she turned a turbulent piece of history into an emotional, inspiring, and engaging piece of fiction.
Note: Orphan Train is the May selection for She Reads. I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins)