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. 

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4 thoughts on “Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

  1. This has actually been on my physical book shelf for ages at this point! I enjoyed your review, but I think I’m going to have an even harder time picking it up knowing how sad it is. Some of my favorite books are often sad ones, but I’m always hesitant to start them!

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  2. Elton John sang “sad songs say so much” but I say Sad books say so much! It was sad, but I thought that it was a good book. I love historical fiction because it really makes history come alive. This book may not be to everyone’s liking, but I enjoyed it. I hope you enjoy it if and when you start it. 🙂

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  3. Now I really have to read this book! My great-grandmother was an orphan in the early 1900s. She wasn’t on an orphan train, but she was in a lineup at a church for anyone to walk up and choose a child to take home. She was lucky though and ended up in a nice family, even though the wife was a little surprised when her husband brought home another child (they already had a few). Thank you – I’ll have to move this up on my list now!

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  4. I’m glad it worked out well for your great grandmother! It’s hard to believe that they just let people take children like that. I guess it was a different time. I hope you enjoy the book! 🙂

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