Owlcat’s CBR 5 Review #13: Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline

This book was a very fast read for me because the history and the characters were so enticing.  It’s two stories that are parallel to one another, which sounds a little gimmicky but that isn’t true at all, although one story is a little weaker than the other (Molly’s) and I’d almost have preferred the novel focused just on the historical story that is the reference in the title, the so-called orphan trains that went from New York City to the Midwest from the late 1850s until the late 1920s.  I had heard about the orphan trains but knew no details and had thought they were just a phenomenon of the 1800s, so was very surprised to discover they continued well into the 20th Century. 

The book begins in 2011 in Spruce Harbor, Maine, where a 17-year old Penobscot Indian foster child, Molly, is living with a family in which the father had wanted a foster child but whose wife is angry and suspicious about Molly because of her troubled past. We see the situation through Molly’s eyes:  her feeling abandoned by her own family after her father is killed in an accident and her mother dissolves into drug abuse and poverty;  her feeling unwanted and abandoned by numerous foster families;  and her knowing that she is basically unwanted where she currently resides and distrustful of the people assigned to care for her. Over the years, she has developed numerous coping skills to prevent more injuries to her psyche, including developing a Goth exterior and not getting close to anyone, including her foster parents and her Child Services therapist. She will soon be 18 and aging out of the system and has given little thought to what that might mean for her, but assumes it will be just one more abandonment. 

Molly does like to read and seems to relish stories around people who are independent and reflecting her own character and determination.  At one point, she is discovered stealing one of three copies of “Jane Eyre” from the local library and consequently is assigned community service hours, and becomes involved with helping an elderly woman, Vivian, who is 91 years old, sort through and discard decades of materials in her attic.  Molly at first sees this simply as a task to get through and doesn’t expect to connect with Vivian or share any of her own life with her, but as time passes and more is revealed through the sometimes odd items they come across in the attic that Vivian had been unable to part with and the many letters and other writings, she begins to realize that Vivian’s life, although separated by many decades from her own, is also very similar to her own.  Both lost their fathers and had institutionalized mothers;  both were passed from home to home;  and both had cultural identities that were reflected in talismanic keepsakes, a Claddagh necklace for Vivian, Native American fetishes for Molly, and which they had lost touch with through their respective journeys.

Vivian’s story  begins several chapters into the book, and was for me the more interesting of the two, partly because it was more detailed and partly because she seemed to overcome horrendous situations, one after the other.  I was also drawn to her young character initially, when it focused on her 7-year old self as a recent immigrant to New York City when she and her family arrived from Ireland, to her preteen years, when her life began to slowly improve, because with a grandchild at 11 now, this resonated more intensely for me.  Nevertheless, I think I would have been intrigued by her because, once again, it’s a character who copes with almost apocalyptic scenarios. What would have happened to me in her situation? She lost so much, including her name when given a more “American” name (no one could easily pronounce or spell her Irish name), not once but twice, and endured so much with a resignation that reflects how deeply she had to bury her past life.

Vivian first endures  shattered expectations of coming to New York City, where her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s apparent mental illness are exacerbated by the extreme poverty and realization that life is worse than it was in Ireland.  She then loses her entire family in a tenement fire. This is in the late 1920s, shortly before the Stock Market crash and well before there were any real social service safety nets, and as a result, for a while, she lives in an orphanage run by the Children’s Aid Society, which had been sending orphans and “street urchins” out of New York City on these orphan trains for many, many years, and placing them with Midwestern families, ostensibly for adoption but more often than not, they became indentured servants. Most in the Society truly thought they were offering these children both redemption and an opportunity to better lives compared to what they were enduring in the city. Some, mostly babies, did have the good fortune of being adopted, but most, like Vivian and her closest friend on the train, Dutchy, became hired hands. It’s hard to believe what life on a farm for a city child must have been like, where they could no longer live by their own initiatives and wit but were at the mercy of the elements and the back-breaking work on the farms. Most had never seen animals beyond pigeons and rats! Vivian was initially placed with a family that ran a dressmaking shop because she could sew and at first, though difficult, was able to do the work and maintain a semblance of normalcy, though forced to sleep in a hallway alone and was often hungry because of the locked refrigerator. When the Stock Market crashed, she was removed from that placement because they could no longer afford to keep her, and transferred to another family where she was expected to be a mother’s helper, but which was extremely poor and where the mother was emotionally unstable.  Her life became unbearable when the father in the family attempted to rape her (you see it coming), and the mother blames her and forces her out of the home in the middle of a cold, Minnesota winter’s night.  Her story improves after that, gradually, until eventually she becomes the a wealthy store owner and she and her husband retire to Maine.

The best part of her life, however, holds a major sad secret that she never revealed to anyone over the years, not even her good, second husband, but which she finally reveals to Molly during the times they begin more seriously discussing her life. This is the result of a portaging assignment Molly is required to pursue at school when studying local Wabanaki history.  The author quotes Bunny McBride, in Women of the Dawn, in an epilogue that is crucial to the story:  “In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions.  Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.”  Molly pursues this them with Vivian, and ultimately with herself, in terms of portaging metaphorically, realizing both of them had done so over time. 

Interestingly, many of the peripheral women in this book seem to have major psychiatric issues, Molly’s mother, her foster mother whom we meet at the beginning of the novel, her other foster mothers that she thinks about at times when comparing her current placement with those, Vivian’s mother, and the two women Vivian encounters in her two bad placements.  As a result, these peripheral women are either cruel or distant enough to validate both main characters’ wariness to connect. Yet through their mutual stories, and with a lot of hesitation, Vivian and Molly do connect; they have come to recognize the similarities in their stories but also the similarities in their personalities, and are thus able to trust one another.

I don’t think I’m writing a good review here;  I find it difficult to choose aspects of the book that kept me reading it, yet, as I said, it was a quick read.  I wanted to get to the next part of each character’s story.  I do recommend the book but have to admit I can’t tell the reader what to look for that resonated so well with me.  I guess the reader will have to find their own reason to enjoy the book.