Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

  Summary (Amazon): Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is an unforgettable story of friendship and second chances that highlights a little-known but historically significant movement in America’s past—and it includes a special PS section for book clubs featuring insights, interviews, and more.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: heartwarming

So this is the book that was chosen for my pick for this year’s book club list for the literary fiction category. Unfortunately I wasn’t wowed by it. I found it a little bit overly predictable, and it felt more like reading a movie than it did reading a book (aka everything wraps up neatly at the end). However, on the other hand, it exposed me to a part of American history that I was unfamiliar with. I just wanted more from it. A lot more.

The book juxtaposes two story lines that obviously intertwine–Molly, a teenager in modern time, and Vivian, and old lady in modern time, who was obviously the one on the orphan train. The problem is Molly. Molly’s sections are contrived, unrealistic, and so cheesy young adult, that I nearly almost stopped reading it. And I hated that the book began with Molly instead of beginning with Vivian.

Molly is the most stereotypical angsty teenager of all times. She’s a goth vegetarian “orphan” (technically her deadbeat mother is still alive but she’s in and out of jail) who stole a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and now she is apparently about to go to juvenile detention unless she finds some community service to do instead. Her boyfriend, Jack, pulls some strings with his mother to allow Molly to do her community service helping Vivian, Jack’s mother’s employer, sort through years of boxes. (Is that what community service looks like these days?)

Vivian was born in Ireland under the name of Niamh. She, her parents, and her sister and brothers, moved to America in 1927 and lived in a tiny apartment in New York City. Two years after arrival with no real sight of the American Dream, the family perishes in an apartment fire and only Niamh survives. The neighbors, the Schatzmans, take her to the Children’s Aid Society where she is sent on a train to the midwest for adoption. En route, she befriends an older boy “Dutchy” (Hans) who sits beside her, and they promise that no matter what happens, they will find each other later. Dutchy gets picked at the first stop, Minneapolis, where they are put through all but a sale. Niamh boards the train for the next stop, Albans, MN.

in Albans, she is selected by an Irish man and his wife, the Byrnes. Mrs. Byrne runs a clothing shop, which Niamh, now Dorothy, works at. She doesn’t go to school, but she is treated OK until the stock market crashes and she is “returned” and sent to live with another family, the Grotes. The Grotes are a hot mess. The mom sleeps all day. The dad wants to basically live off the grid. (He doesn’t have a job. He just hunts and forages for food.) Niamh sleeps in a pile with the rest of the skinny children. But she is allowed to go to school. There she befriends the nice teacher, Miss Larson. It’s a good thing too because in not too long, Mr. Grote assaults Niamh and Mrs. Grote walks in, blaming Niamh and kicking her out of the house. She walks to the schoolhouse with her belongings, and Miss Larson calls Mr. Sorenson, the Children’s Aid Society worker. He thinks that Niamh was being overly dramatic. Luckily Miss Larson stands up for her, and volunteers to allow Niamh to stay with her in her boardinghouse until a new solution can be found.

Mrs. Murphy, the landlady of the boardinghouse, is Irish as well, and she immediately takes a liking to Niamh who stays at the boardinghouse until Mrs. Murphy finds her a new family, the Nielsens who lost their only daughter to diphtheria a few years prior. They initially want her as some additional help at the shop that they own, but over time, they adopt her and change her name yet again, to Vivian. (Creepily their dead daughter’s name). As Vivian grows older, she takes a real interest in the shop, suggesting designs and changes to make the store better, eventually managing the store upon graduation.

One night, she’s enticed by two of her friends to go with them to Minneapolis to see The Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies!). She doesn’t go out much, as she has been brought up knowing how severe getting in trouble can be (although this is weird that she has this behavior but yet Molly does not??) but her friends were there mostly to party only under the guise of seeing the movie. In the most eye-rolling moment of serendipity, she accidentally finds Dutchy while at a club in Minneapolis. Shortly after that, they get married. All is going well. They move back to Hemingford where Vivian runs the store and Dutchy teaches music at a local school. And then World War II happens. Dutchy is eventually drafted, and while he is in training, Vivian discovers that she is pregnant. They write regularly, but eventually the bad news come back. A plane crashed onto the fleet carrier where Dutchy was. He did not survive.

Vivian makes the hard decision to place the baby, a girl, up for adoption. After the war, she marries Jim Daly, who brings the rest of Dutchy’s things to her. It’s more of a business partnership, but it worked out for both of them.

Molly presses Vivian to investigate what happened to the rest of her family, but Vivian does not want to embrace the technology. As part of a school project, Molly decides to do it herself, finding out that Vivian’s sister indeed survived the fire and was adopted by the Schatzmans. She had children and grandchildren, but had passed away a few years previously. Molly gets in a last fight with her foster parents and goes to live with Vivian who has a big house with many empty rooms. And Molly only has a short amount of time before she’s out of the system anyway. Molly tells Vivian about her sister, and this information convinces Vivian to embrace technology (way more than seems likely) and tracks down her daughter.

The book ends with the daughter and her family coming to meet Vivian.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to love this book. It was my choice for this year, and the topic is interesting. But I just could not get past the clichéd writing. I know I’m in the minority on this (it has a 4+ star ranking on Amazon), but I just was expecting more.

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Filed under 3 stars

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