Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline tells of a surprising friendship between two women — troubled seventeen-year-old foster child Molly Ayer and ninety-one-year-old Vivian Daly. Like Molly, Vivian was orphaned as a young child. When Molly comes to Vivian’s house to organize Vivian’s attic as part of community service so as to avoid juvenile prison (punishment for stealing a beat-up copy of Jane Eyre from the library), Vivian helps Molly to understand life and to cope with her difficulties.
In a brief prologue, Vivian explains that she believes in ghosts and that the spirits of the past are always around her. She explains that she suffered the deaths of many friends and loved ones in her life, and it is better to believe in ghosts than to believe those people are gone forever.
As the story of Molly’s relationship with Vivian develops in the present day, its events are paralleled with, or echoed by, the story of Vivian’s experiences in Depression-era Minnesota. That story begins with Vivian’s Irish family coming to New York through Ellis Island. While struggling to make ends meet, a fire kills everyone else in the family, leaving Vivian an orphan. As a result, Vivian is sent on an “orphan train” in the hope that – somewhere – she will find a family to take her in.
The Orphan Train Movement, an interesting yet little-known piece of American history, was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern American cities to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. Some 12,500 orphans from New York and Boston ended up in 43 towns in Michigan over this period. This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.
Orphan Train is a compelling story of loss, adaptation, and courage. The two unlikely friends differ in age and socioeconomic status, but, as they continue to spend time together, they each learn from each other, help each other, and have much in common.
Bryan will be reviewing Orphan Train on WZZM Channel 13 Take Five morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 2. Everyone is welcome to join the monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, March 2 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague for camaraderie and discussion.