Last month my mom recommended the book Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline to me. She said she read practically the entire book in one sitting so I knew it was worth a try.
The book is about a troubled teenage girl named Molly who has been in and out of foster care her entire life. At the present she is in trouble for stealing a library book and has to complete community service. She manages to do this by helping a wealthy elderly woman, Vivian, clean out her attic. These two seemingly vastly different individuals get to know each other, and as Vivian sees and touches items from her past she tells Molly the stories behind them- the stories of her life. The book switches back and forth from the present (which was the year 2011) and Vivian’s past, starting in 1929.
Vivian immigrated to America as a child from Ireland around 1929. Her family had little very little money and just barely got by. After an unfortunate incident, Vivian (birth name Niamh, pronounced “Neev”) was left orphaned and abandoned in New York City. She had no way of getting back to her remaining family in Ireland and no one in the states to care for her. At this time in NYC there was a big problem with what to do with children like Niamh. Many were living on the streets and getting into trouble; some even ended up in jails with adult criminals. The Children’s Aid Society was founded and it, along with the New York Foundling Hospital, sought to find refuge and care for these children. That leads us to the so-called Orphan Trains.
Children of all ages would be piled into close quarters in a train headed for the mid-west. Ahead of time flyers would be hung up in various cities announcing the impending arrival of the orphans to try to stir up interest of the local citizens to harbor one or more of the children.
Upon arrival at these cities, the children would be lined up like cattle and inspected by the interested townspeople. The infants were usually chosen first, while the older kids were often sought to be used as apprentices or servants; it was up to the families whether or not to officially adopt the children or take them in to be a part of their family. Some people at these auction-like events even went so far as to inspect a child’s teeth or musculature to make sure they could handle heavy labor.
Vivian recants to Molly about her various experiences with different families she lived with growing up in this situation. Most experiences were dreadful and you couldn’t help but feeling terrible for poor helpless Niamh. I don’t want to give too much away, but obviously Niamh grows up to be Vivian and she does well for herself.
Sharing these stories bring Molly and Vivian closer together- Molly herself feeling abandoned most of her life. They become kindred spirits of sorts. Overall I’d have to say that this was a very interesting and heart-warming story. This is a part of history that I don’t ever recall learning about it in school and I feel like a lot of others might not be aware of it either. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into that particular part of history and see it through the eyes (albeit, fictional eyes, but they still seemed accurate from what I can tell) of someone actually experiencing it. The story can be heart-wrenching in parts, but I definitely recommend it; it’s certainly a page-turner.
If you’re interesting in learning more about the orphan trains (besides just using Google, obviously) you can visit the National Orphan Train Complex and research center in Concordia, Kansas. They have records of people who passed through on the trains and all kinds of pictures and memorabilia and information. Who knows, maybe you even have a relative who was involved somehow. If I’m ever in that area I’d love to check it out.
If you give Orphan Train a read let me know how you like it. I’d love to hear other views on it.
I hope everyone has a great weekend!