Thursday, September 17, 2015

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

“I learned long ago that loss is not only probable but inevitable. I know what it means to lose everything, to let go of one life and find another. And now I feel, with a strange, deep certainty, that it must be my lot in life to be taught that lesson over and over again.” 

Orphan Train is a book that I had seen around for quite some time before deciding to pick it up and give it a try. Truthfully, I knew little about the orphan train system that used to function in the United States (I knew it existed, but hadn't read further). This fictional account of one girl's journey on the orphan train contrasted with a teenager's journey on the modern-day orphan train, the foster system, is a book I really enjoyed.

The books transitions back and forth between 2 perspectives. In one, we are in the present day learning about young Molly's experiences in the foster care system. As an older teenager, she's beginning to age out of the system and has struggled to find a place where she feels she belongs. She soon befriends the 91-year-old Vivian Daly, who, in a younger life, had been an orphan on an orphan train. 

Together, their stories contrast and wind together in a narrative not only about the past, but about the present. I couldn't help but compare Molly's experiences in the system to that of Vivian's. I was most struck by the feeling of having to conform to their host family and their expectations. In Molly's case, it's fighting against foster parents who don't understand her beliefs and values (being a vegetarian, etc). For Vivian, it's losing her original name, living in poor conditions, and taking the place of a deceased daughter.

Their stories do parallel each other, and highlight the negative aspects of our current fostering system. I mean, in most stories where there is discussion about foster parents, are there ever any positive, healthy relationships? I know they must exist, just not in literature (if you know of any, please tell me). But it really talks about the plight of young people in our country, and the world at large. What do we do with children who are orphaned? What happens to those kids who don't get adopted?

“So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason - to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?”

The book raised a lot of questions for me. I want to learn more about this-both the historical aspect of the orphan trains, but also our modern system for taking care of kids in the system. If anything, this book was inspiring for me (I have already planned out a unit on this topic to do with my AP kids after they take their test in May). 

Back to the story....Kline managed to weave the two stories together seamlessly, and while I was a bit more invested in Vivian's story than Molly's, I found a lot to value in each. When I initially finished, I was almost bothered my Molly's story, thinking it distracted from the power of Vivian's, but after some reflection, I realized that Vivian's story merely highlights Molly's-it shows that we still have children with no families.

In all, it was a beautifully written book and a fast read. If you're a fan of historical fiction, you're sure to enjoy this one.

“So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason - to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?”


  1. Thanks for that lovely review. I've heard about this book, but I guess I've never paid enough attention to find out what it's about. Now that I know, I'm eager to read it. But, alas, so many books, so little time. Perhaps I'll suggest it for my upcoming book club meeting. Though I have a few others I'm going to suggest too, so....We'll see. Thanks for the lovely review!

  2. So many of my friends adored this book that I had inflated expectations going in, alas. It would make a good book club book though!