Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

This book has been on my TBR for a while now and I’m glad that I finally read it. I enjoyed this book but it was very sad. It made me aware of what was, to me, an unknown page in American history: orphan trains. I don’t think that I will forget this book, or the protagonist, Niamh Power, anytime soon.

 

Image result for orphan train

The story is about Niamh and her family, who emigrate from Ireland and come to America to start a new life in New York. This could have been another story of what life in the tenements was like, but it went in a different direction. Sadly, Niamh is orphaned and placed on an “orphan train” to find a home in the Midwest. This is her story.

From 1854 to 1929 orphan trains brought children from the East coast to the Midwest to find homes and I’m sure it started as a good idea. Some children  found loving families this way, but others did not.

This book is really sad, and yet, it was hard for me to put it down. It has a dual timeline: the present in 2011 with Molly, a foster girl who has been bounced around, never really fitting in, who is sent to do community service by helping a widow, Vivian Daly, clean out her attic. As they go through Vivian’s boxes we go back in time, starting in the 1920’s, and learn about Vivian’s story.

And, Vivian’s story is so sad. No child deserves a childhood like that. There were strict rules on the train, very little comfort, and constant stress on the importance of finding a family. These children lost just about everything and you get a sense of the fear they felt.  You also get an idea of what it must have been like for these children to be inspected like cattle to see if they could be of use in a home or on a farm. 

But, I kept wondering, “How can this be legal?” The hope was that the children on the “orphan train” would be adopted by families, but what was promised was that if a family took them in and fed them, clothed them and sent them to school, then the kids would help them around the house or farm. However, it seems that there was no protection for the children or any follow ups to ensure they were treated well. Anything could happen and it probably did.

It was distressing when Vivian, who was named Dorothy earlier in the novel, reported abuse, and the children’s aid worker did not believe her. Worse, since he didn’t have a place for her, he was going to send her back! As an orphan, she had few, if any, rights. How many children experienced something similar during that period? 

Also, a quick note on identity. When we meet our young protagonist her name is Niamh. But her name was changed by the first family who took her in. And, with each change of her name, she sheds more of her past. There is very little she has to connect her to her past or her family. These kids have lost so much in their young lives, their culture and beliefs may be all they have left. It was just heartbreaking.

The book is well written and descriptive. The story is engaging but I was definitely more drawn into the storyline about Vivian’s past. I appreciate that this story shed light on this situation. I had never heard of an “orphan train” prior to this book and it’s a subject worth reading more about.