That “orphan trains” ran regularly from Eastern cities to America’s Midwest for the better part of eight decades (1853-1929), comes as a surprise to most Americans. The occasional movie, book, or song might explore the experience, but the story of how thousands of children were handed over to adults, who had to do little more than step forward and claim them, has never really caught the national imagination. It is believed that most of the children were adopted by their new families, but it is also known that many of them became little more than indentured servants and a source of free labor for those taking them in.
Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train tells the story of one little girl who was among the last children to ride an orphan train out of New York City. When the child is orphaned by a tragic fire, she becomes a ward of the state and authorities move her to one of the city’s chaotic orphanages. Bad as that life might be, though, she is one of the lucky ones. Without the orphanage, she could have ended up on the streets of New York to live as best she could among the thousands of children already out there scrambling to stay alive. When the little girl is placed on a train heading west, she concludes correctly that if no family chooses her, she will be returned to the orphanage for good.
But although she is among the very last of the children chosen, chosen she is, and the child begins a new life in Depression-era Minnesota in the hands of a couple who see her as little more than a hired hand they don’t have to pay. Vivian Daly’s story may not be a typical one for children of the orphan train, but it is certainly one experienced by a fair percentage of the orphan train children who were often turned over to just about anyone willing to take them off the hands of the orphanages.
|Christina Baker Kline|
Now flash forward about eighty years to the coast of Maine where 91-year-old Vivian has hired Molly, a teenager living with foster parents, to help her “clean out” her attic. Molly is a rebellious teen who has not been very lucky with the foster homes into which she has been placed, and she only takes the job with Vivian because she is forced to do so. Molly and Vivian are wary of each other from the start, neither trusting the motives of the other, but as they come to know each other during their exploration of the contents of Vivian’s attic, their relationship begins to change for the better. As Vivian begins to relive her life through the contents of all those boxes stacked in the attic, the two realize just how much they have in common, and they form a solid bond.
Orphan Train is a dramatic look at a part of American social history that is all but forgotten today. But its principle characters are sometimes more stereotypical than they are realistic, and both the novel’s climax and its ending are fairly predictable ones. Adult readers will learn much about the orphan train system from the novel, but Orphan Train is probably more suitable for Young Adult readers who can more readily identify with the book’s two central characters.
Bonus: This is my favorite orphan train song - as performed by the wonderful Dry Branch Fire Squad.