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4.6 out of 5 stars
Orphan Train
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VINE VOICEon February 4, 2013
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On the coast of Maine lives a wealthy ninety-one year old woman named Vivian Daly. Yet in her attic are trunks that reveal the secrets of her turbulent past.

It is the year 2011, and nearby in the same town of Spruce Harbor, lives a seventeen-year-old girl named Molly Ayer who has bounced from foster home to foster home, and is now in a situation involving petty theft that will require some kind of community service.

Told in beautifully evocative prose, the story unfolds in alternate perspectives, revealing what has happened to each of them, and how the parallel lines of their lives now converge to spotlight the similarities between them.

From Vivian's early childhood in Ireland, to New York City, comes her passage on the Orphan Trains in 1929. A journey that will take her to Minnesota, from one home to another, never really knowing what home feels like, as she is treated like a slave and seldom has enough of anything, much less affection or love.

What Molly sees when she meets the elderly woman is a wealthy person who could not begin to understand her or her issues. But as the two of them clean out the boxes in the attic, the stories they share with one another reveal so much more than either could have suspected.

The characters, both the primary ones and the supporting ones, brought so much color and emotion to the stories that I could feel as though I were sitting in their midst, observing and listening to them. And as I neared the end of Orphan Train: A Novel, I really could not have imagined a more beautiful or satisfying conclusion, and with it came a feeling that these characters would live on in my memories.

At one point, Molly is at Vivian's home, taking in her recent good fortune:

"Sitting in the rocker in the kitchen, looking out at the water, Molly feels oddly at peace. For the first time since she can remember, her life is beginning to make sense. What up until this moment has felt like a random, disconnected series of unhappy events she now views as necessary steps in a journey toward...enlightenment is perhaps too strong a word, but there are others, less lofty, like self-acceptance and perspective...."

It is impossible to read this story and not take away from it the knowledge that wonderfully unexpected moments can happen in a life, even in one that is full of turbulence, pain, loss, and the sense of being an outsider. And when such moments occur, it is also impossible not to celebrate. Or feel the sense of exuberance that comes with the gifts of love, acceptance, and second chances. A story with a perfect ending that I won't share here, for fear of spoiling it for the reader. Suffice it to say that you will love Vivian and Molly and will feel the joy of their unique connection. Five stars.
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on March 25, 2014
etween 1854 and 1929 orphaned and homeless children cast out from the teeming tenements to the harsh streets of New York City were collected and boarded on special railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West. The hope of the organizers was finding families to offer these nine to 13 year olds a home and new beginning.



Over a period of sixty years a quarter million indigent immigrant children were sent West. From station to station in small towns west of Chicago they were paraded by poorly equipped social workers before prospective foster parents, many of whose motives were less than noble. Few if any background checks of the perspective families were completed. Children were selected at each stop and those that were not chosen moved on to the next whistle-stop somewhere down the line. There was little or no follow-up and many of these children became little more than un-paid household labor and farm help, often in dysfunctional families. Many were not given the opportunity to attend school.


Christina Baker Kline in her riveting New York Times best selling novel Orphan Train (2013) weaves a story of how the toxic ingredients of the Orphan Trains, conceived to rescue children from the depravity of New York's streets, often cast them into even worse circumstances. Orphan Train is the story of one train rider, a 9 year-old girl, who finally in her 90s comes to reveal her secret story to yet another rider from a turbulent world of another era.


The story is powerful and Orphan Train is a rewarding read, both historically and emotionally. Christina Baker, in remarkable fashion, creates a protagonist who vividly portrays this little known chapter in American history.

Earlier this year I referred you to Jacob Riis's How The Other Half Lives @ Riss was among the first Muckrakers , uncovering social injustice in America. It is in his How The Other Half Lives that I first learned the history of the Orphan Trains.

Orphan Train is a novel so well researched that it could be categorized a historical novel. Kline was able to interview four actual train riders when they were in their late 90s. Other works of fiction by Christina Baker Kline are Sweet Water, Desire Lines, The way Life Should Be and Bird in Hand.
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on April 2, 2013
I continue to be amazed at the things I learn about the history of this country from reading books. Orphan Train is based in fact; from the mid 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th century there was no system for dealing with orphans or what we would consider foster children today. It was left to churches and charitable organizations. And for those who feel that they are best left to deal with these social issues, I suggest you research the orphan trains because their solution was to take the children into various cities and give them away to anyone who wanted a child. No background checks, no follow up, no nothing. These children were left with people in the hopes that they would be given a good life. Some were, many were nothing more than house slaves. I'll get off the soapbox now.

The book juxtaposes two lives - that of young Molly, a foster child of the current generation who lives with a family that is divided as to her presence. The "father" is pleasant to her and sees the good in Molly but the "mother" would rather she be gone and in all truth is only doing the foster thing for the money it brings into the household. The second life is that of Vivian - born Niamh, who becomes Dorothy and ultimately Vivian as she is left alone in New York after her family is killed in a fire. She is taken in by Children's Aid and sent West on an Orphan Train to hopefully find a new home. What she finds at first is mistreatment, suspicion and abuse.

While on the train she meets some other orphans one of whom will play an important role in her life. Most of the other characters, though fade into the background as the story focuses on Vivian and Molly and how the two of them reconcile their pasts which are not as different as they might think.

I sped through the first 2/3rds of this book totally enthralled with Vivian's story. Molly's life was really not as interesting or as fleshed out as Vivian's and I suppose that since the book IS titled Orphan Train it should be focused on Vivian. Once the book hit the point in the story that moved it to the present it was as if all the rich detail that made the first part so compelling went out the window. There was an OMG moment in the book and then everything was rushed and it became, at least to me, a book of what could have been.

It was as if the author had only so many pages left and had to fit in more information than allotted space. I felt cheated somehow and very disappointed. The book could have been so much more and I feel the loss of what I know I've missed.

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This is an intertwined story of Molly, a 17 year old vegetarian Goth in the foster system in Maine, and Vivian, a 93yr old woman who was once an Irish orphan sent out to Minnesota on an "orphan train." Orphans were rounded up and sent out to be farmed out to families needing cheap (read "unpaid") labor or, if babies, adopted to childless couples.

Vivian and Molly meet when Molly has to work off community service by helping Vivian clean her attic. The boxes in the attic are stuffed with mementos of Vivian's past. As the story unfolds, we change from New York and Minnesota of the early 20's, to current day Maine and Molly's life with her foster family. Naturally, there are a lot of parallels between an orphan of the 20's and a foster child who lost her father and who's mother is a druggie. The intertwined story is deftly done.

My grandfather was an immigrant farmer in North Dakota (he later moved to Kansas to run a grocery store.) My mom's book club was reading this book and someone who knew her dad's background suddenly asked "Was your dad on the Orphan Train"? No, he was educated in New Jersey when he came off the boat in New York from Sweden (where he'd been a sailor after leaving Latvia.) He migrated west to farm. Not an orphan, but...a good question. How many of us who have Midwest roots have relatives who ended up transported out to farms because they were orphaned in New York City?

The characters are well-drawn and the story has those gritty details that make you feel you are standing right there in the room with Vivian or Molly. I just couldn't put it down and read it all in one go. And I'll probably read it again, though it's a tough read in many places. The cruelty and neglect people dumped on the most unfortunate among them is downright despicable. No pity on the hired hand. Especially if it's a family-less child. Sad.
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on November 27, 2016
If you look at my other reviews here, you'll see that this is NOT the type of book I normally read; however, I still loved this!

EDIT: after sleeping on it, I reduced my rating to 4 stars for two reasons (POSSIBLE SPOILERS).

1. Vivian's choices revealed towards the end of the book don't quite make sense to me, given her history with Maisie, Carmine, and her personal not-always-pleasant experiences. Not that I have been in anything remotely like that situation, but, even through her numbness/depression or what have you, I would have thought that Vivian would want to hold tight to that piece of "the love of her life." I feel like the author chose drama for the sake of drama.

2. Molly was more than a bit cliché. I get that parallels between the two main women were wanted, but enough similarities could have been achieved if, say, Molly was still living with but was an afterthought to her biological mother.
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on June 27, 2016
The Orphan Train is a light treatment of a fascinating topic: the mass forced migration of hundreds of thousands of children without guardians (orphaned or otherwise) from NYC to the Midwest by the Children's Aid Society, a Christian mission which believed that instilling Midwestern values in NYC's vagrant children would save them from a life of evil and vice. The element I think I enjoyed most about this book is how the author created a modern-day "orphan" and juxtaposed her with a nonagenarian orphan and had the two women (re)discover family, love and joie de vivre through their interactions. The characters could have been more deeply developed, more finely drawn. But as a light beach read, this book is very satisfying.
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on November 9, 2016
A story that very well could have been based on facts??? This parallel story between a modern day girl that is caught up in the system and an older woman that had been on one of the orphans from an orphan train and caught up in that system. Circumstances cause situations that were often beyond the control of the person involved. The interwoven stories showed restoration and hope for both characters. I didn't like the fact the not telling the truth was reinforced in several situations but I have no alternative solutions to prevent the lies. The ending was awesome!!!
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on March 31, 2016
This book was unlike anything else I'd read lately, so I really enjoyed it. It bounces back and forth between the present and the past, in a way that's easy to follow. The present is the story of a teenager in the foster system who works with an older lady to finish some community service hours. The past is the story of a girl whose family dies in a fire and is sent on an orphan train to the midwest to be adopted. I loved the ways these two stories intertwined throughout the book, and even though they are set in such different time periods/places, there are so many similarities between these two girls' lives. I had no idea the orphan train was a real thing! Though this book is fiction, it opened my eyes to a piece of history that was new to me.
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on March 29, 2017
Christina Baker Kline has written a masterpiece. I discovered this writer a few months ago and have been reading my way through all of her books. She manages to convey different themes, characters and emotions in her books. Orphan Train is,put simply, a wonderful book about brave children who survive dreadful beginnings. Most of all it is about surviving and succeeding, a unique perspective in these times of universal whiners.
I highly recommend this beautifully written book.
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VINE VOICEon December 24, 2014

The orphan train movement in the United States between1853 and 1929 is not a well-known social welfare program. It was sponsored for the most part by the Children's Aid Society and relocated over 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children from the East coast to foster homes in the Midwest. The children ranged in age from 4 to 18; some were even younger. Notices announcing the arrival of the trains were posted in mainly rural areas and residents were invited to view and inspect the children and, if deemed suitable, they could be taken home. The program was ended with the advent of organized foster care in America.

Times were hard, food was scarce, and some children received wretched care from their foster parents. Others were fortunate enough to be received into well-off circumstances. The spectrum of their stories is wide and varied. Christina Baker Kline, author of "Orphan Train," became interested in the story of these children, conducted an enormous amount of research, and has written a beautiful account of an orphan train survivor who bonds in later years with a contemporary young woman who is experiencing personal hardships of her own. And so a seventeen-year old rebel struggling to find her way and a ninety-one year wealthy old lady who survived her early years as a train orphan come together in a touching and healing relationship that develops into a remedy for their mutual loneliness.

Vivian is the survivor of crushing poverty in rural Ireland, the immigrant turmoil of late 1920 in New York City, the loss of her family in a fire, and a subsequent train trip with strangers to a land of poverty, ignorance, mistreatment, and abuse. She is nine-years old when her journey by train begins.

Molly, a contemporary nonconformist, has been in and out of numerous foster homes and refuses to bend to someone else's idea of how to conduct her life. She has a tattoo, piercings, and dyed hair. She has trouble controlling her mouth, getting along with others, and is fiercely independent. Her boyfriend has learned that he is simply along for the ride and operates under Molly's rule.

Molly is given community service for stealing a book from the public library and, as a last resort before she has to serve time, she agrees to help the elderly Vivian clean out her attic. As they work together sorting through the debris of Vivian's past, life's stories are revealed, similar experiences are shared, and closeness develops. Molly provides the steady companionship that Vivian has never enjoyed, and the elderly woman provides encouragement and purpose to Molly's unanchored existence.

This is a marvelous book written with clarity and filled with historical accounts based on careful research. The relationship between the two women as described by the author is poignant and demonstrates the importance of taking time to listen to each other. I enjoyed the book greatly and highly recommend it.

Schuyler T Wallace
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