Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels, and has received praise and acknowledgment for her newest release, Orphan Train. Chosen as “One Book, One Read” by over fifty communities and campuses and published in 35 countries, Kline delivers a work of fiction that is rich in history, emotion, and truth. By shedding a light on an often-overlooked period of US history, Orphan Train pays homage to the 200,000 children who were shipped on trains in the Midwest between the years 1854 and 1929.
The Children’s Society was the so-called “perfect solution” to children who, from one way or another, had become abandoned and homeless. Children were transported on trains from major cities such as Boston and New York to Midwestern states, where they were placed into new homes. With a possibility of being brought into the hands a loving family, there lied a greater possibility of being taken as a form of cheap labor, and in the worst cases, ruthless abuse.
Like many children during the time, the protagonist of the novel, Niamh is an Irish Catholic immigrant who is brought to America with its promise of endearing hope and abundant opportunity. The Lower East Side of New York City sharply contrasts with her homeland, the small Irish village of Kinvara, but she is optimistic and willing to adapt to her new surroundings. Two years later, however, she loses her family in a house fire. With everything she has grown to know and love now gone, she is sent on a train to Minnesota, her fate bleak and unknown.
Niamh’s journey is a remarkable one, and it is one she reflects upon later in life as Vivian Daley, now 90 years old and residing in an old house in Spruce Harbor, Maine. Vivian shares her story with seventeen-year old Molly Ayer, a troubled teenager who has spent most of her years in foster care. For a community service requirement, Molly helps Vivian clean her attic. As they uncover the various memorabilia that Vivian has accumulated throughout her lifetime, the two build an unlikely and worthy friendship. Molly relishes in Vivian’s experiences, as Vivian is living proof that hope exists even for an orphan such as herself.
Kline succeeds in beautifully connecting the lives of seventeen-year-old Molly and ninety-year old Vivian. Vivian confides in Molly and reveals a tale of everything she has endured -loss, suffering, heartache, and a quest for a sense of belonging. While she doesn’t find it at every doorstep, she finds it in a few of the lives she encounters along the way, and finally, she is brought back to one particular person who had been waiting for her all along. “My entire life has felt like chance. Random moments of loss and connection. This is the first one that feels, instead, like fate.”
Brimming with equal portions of fiction and history, Kline delivers a fantastic plot to her audience. I found myself impelled to turn each page, transfixed by the characters embark from a black and white world of despair into a world saturated in hope. Each leg in her journey is accompanied by poetic, vivid descriptions of character and setting that exemplify the writing of Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. “Mrs Scatcherd stands at the front of the car, holding on to two leather seat backs, the arms of her cape draping like the wings of a crow.”
While Vivian’s story pushes the reader forward, I found myself losing interest in the subplot. Undoubtedly, Molly’s only purpose in the novel is to uncover the compelling past of Vivian Daley. And, towards the end of the novel, her role shifts into helping Vivian piece together the remaining mysteries of her past and find closure. Alas, the story of an angsty, troubled teenager who wears a lot of black is not at all interesting in comparison to Vivian, a character who is chock-full of amazing life experiences.
“I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left behind.” Orphan Train reflects not only the human desire, but the human need for love. Vivian’s story will haunt you long after you have finished reading. Kline’s beautifully crafted language will enchant you, its dialogue will entice you, but its relevance will captivate you.