The New Maine Times Book Review: Orphan Train

Posted Tuesday, February 11, 2014 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review: Orphan Train
By Christina Baker Kline.
William Morrow, 2013.
278 pages, $14.99.
ISBN 978-0-06-195072-8.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell

In one of the most intriguing, tender novels of 2013, Christina Baker Kline cleverly reveals a little known chapter in American social history – the orphan train phenomenon of the 1920s, the well-intended by sad transportation of orphaned or abandoned children from East Coast cities to the rural Midwest, to be arbitrarily place with families, often as indentured labor on farms and in businesses.

This is the brilliant and sensitive story of two women, generations apart, who discover their lives are much alike, and who both come to realize that friendships and family are too precious to ignore.

Christina Baker Kline was raised in Maine, and is the author of five previous novels and four non-fiction books.  She currently splits her time living in Minnesota and Maine.  The ORPHAN TRAIN was nominated for the 2013 Maine Readers Choice Award for fiction, a well-deserved recognition of Kline’s considerable writing talent.

In Spruce Harbor, Maine, in 2011, ninety-one year old Vivian is a veteran of the orphan train in 1929, when she was nine years old.  She was an orphaned Irish immigrant girl taken in by the Children’s Aid Society in New York City, and shipped off to Minnesota to work at a variety of menial labor jobs.

Now 82 years later, Vivian lives alone in a large, old house in Maine, with an attic full of boxes she would like to clean out.  She takes on young, seventeen year old Molly, a juvenile delinquent, to help her go through the boxes and discard all the old junk.  Molly is a rebellious teenager and this project is part of her court-ordered community service sentence.

As the two women dig through the boxes, Vivian remembers those frightful years as an orphan girl – adrift, afraid, and alone in Minnesota, trying to survive in an adult world, hungry, cold, and scared.  However, Vivian is bright and resourceful, and she must make some adjustments:  “I’m learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel.  I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.”

Molly is also an abandoned child, struggling to find her way, just as Vivian did years before, and she too has adapted well.  As the old boxes reveal Vivian’s memories, her pain and heartache, loneliness and fear, Molly sees Vivian’s struggle as her own, and the two women first develop a truce and then a warm companionship.  Molly sees strength and goodness in Vivian; Vivian sees energy and potential in Molly.

Vivian’s story covers the years from 1929 to 1943, from her childhood to adulthood, with a heady mixture of sadness and happiness, culminating in a fateful decision that will haunt her for 68 years.  As she and Molly grow closer they find much to like about each other, and Molly finally understands why Vivian really wanted to clean out her attic.  And the revelation brings surprising comfort to both women.

This is a warm, satisfying, and inspirational story, indeed.

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