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.
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.
THE ORPHAN TRAIN is one of those books you don't want to end. You want it to continue so you can find out even more about the entwined lives of seventeen year old Molly Ayers, Vivian Daly, as well as Jack and his mother Terry Gallant. Eighty two years earlier an unfortunate set of circumstances had placed a nine year old Vivian on the train that would take her from New York City to the plains of Minnesota as one of the more than two hundred thousand children transported to new, and not always better, lives via the Orphan Trains.
Now, fate has once again intervened in the lives of both women as at age 91 Vivian meets Molly, the intelligent but somewhat troubled young woman of Indian heritage living with foster parents who appear to be "in it for the money". As part of a community service assignment, Molly begins to assist Vivian in cleaning out her attic, slowly sorting through the mementos that represent the pieces of Vivian's life she has kept hidden for all these years. As they discover the unexpected correlation in their life experiences and Molly and Vivian develop a true affection for each other.
As the story moves back and forth in time between the late 1920's and present day Maine author Christina Baker Kline's novel explores the subjects of love, adversity, resilience, providence, the workings of the child welfare system, deep and hidden secrets, and how the choices we make can resonate through generations.
As you discover more and more about these characters and their lives, you may certainly question some of their behavior and the decisions they made. While you may not agree with nor understand their actions, they remain endearing folks who stick to your heart like glue so that find yourself accepting their flaws and wishing them well.
on September 12, 2013
I am a prolific reader, one who will read just about any genre. However, I still am quite picky and if a story does not grab me within the first few chapters, you could say I'm pretty much done. I don't rely on reviews and I have never felt the need to write one until I read the very last word of "Orphan Train". For the life of me, I can not tell you the last time a novel has sucked me in the way this one has and for once I was not disappointed to come to the end of a story - it was that satisfying and a truly "full circle" ending. I will not go into the details of this novel because others have done so, probably much better than I can, but I will say that if I were to name the best book I've read in who knows when, upon pain of death (well, maybe insurmountable pain), I'd have to name this extraordinary novel by Christina Baker Kline. I'll be sure to try her other novels, but I'm afraid I've been spoiled...
on April 28, 2013
Well written. I finished this book in one sitting. I love the history, I am seventy years old and had never heard of the orphans trains, and neither had any of my friends.
The best way to learn history, with a great story as the backdrop!
on July 2, 2014
I was extremely disappointed in this book. I guess I was expecting a PBS-esque treatment, but got the Lifetime/Hallmark Channel. The story was poorly written, telling us (instead of showing us) EVERYTHING. We're told that characters develop a deep relationship, that they care for each other, that they're in love, etc., but we're not shown any evidence that this is the case. There is no way that the author has any understanding of how the modern day foster care system (or juvenile justice system) works.
The author seems to confuse Milwaukee with Minneapolis, and with an error that glaring, I find it difficult to trust anything in the story. (There were also an awful lot of cars among rural poor folk in 1929.)
The ending is, I guess, supposed to be happy, but is actually just stupid and unbelievable.
An extra star for the research (although it's not evident in the story) and for bringing the orphan trains to the public's attention. I'm going to watch the PBS documentary, which I am assuming will teach me something about the orphan train experience. Sadly this book did not do that. (I realize it's fiction, but fiction can still teach and inform.)
on June 3, 2014
As others have written, this novel goes back and forth between a teenage girl [Molly] "with attitude" and an elderly woman [Vivian] who rode the "orphan train" from New York to the Midwest in the 1920's. While the historical telling of this unusual saga in American history had the potential to be fascinating, this book does not rise to that level. It is full of stereotypes and a simplistic recounting of the trials and tribulations of Vivian from the time she's loaded onto the train as a young basically abandoned child through the war years. She lands in some pretty awful families; there's the abusive family including a lecherous sicko father, a cruel adoptive "mother" who makes her sleep on a palette in a hallway. Then there's the kind teacher who rescues her. As for Molly, she's not either believable or likeable - really, she steals "Jane Eyre" from the library? And, of course, she's got the evil adoptive "mother". I never "got' any true connection between Molly and Vivian other than the obvious, both orphans of sorts. And the ending wraps everything up too much in a neat little bow.
Two other things bothered me about this book: Vivian is only nine [and a deprived nine-year-old at that] and yet she observes things in a very mature manner, observing architectural details, for example. The other thing is the author's seeming obligation to make Molly's world coarse via the usual ugly language, lots of s-words and f-words. Kind of seemed forced to seem "present day" and only highlights how low our culture has sunk. But was it really necessary?
Characters are stereotypes and not developed thoughtfully. And finally, I found the writing more on the level of a Young Adult novel as others have also noted.
An irritating book. And a lost opportunity to really get into the historical nature of this peculiar bit of our past.
on July 28, 2014
There are a lot of things about this book that were really good, and a lot of things that were a shocking disappointment. Most of these disappointments were delivered via the Molly storyline, which is so inferior to the Vivian storyline in so many ways, it almost seems like it was written by a different author. In fact, I would even go so far as to wager that the Molly storyline was added in a later draft as an afterthought or at the suggestion of an editor to give the book more substance. I don't know if that's the case, but I found the Molly chapters to be poorly written, full of one-dimensional characters, and actually kind of boring.
First, the positives. Some of the prose in the Vivian chapters is lovely and evocative. The orphan train history was very interesting and seemed to be well researched. Niamh / Dorothy / Vivian was an interesting character, and the story was well paced and kept me engaged.
Unfortunately I can't go above a 3-star rating because of the many flaws of this book, particularly in the Molly chapters.
The writing: The writing was often so elementary that I had to stop and check to see if I were reading a YA book. (As far as I can tell, the book is intended for an adult audience.) There is a lot of unnecessary description that doesn't add to the story, as well as a lot of info dumping that breaks the "show don't tell" cardinal rule of writing. And some things that are just plain odd, like a description of a laptop towards the end, which I can't quote because I gave away my copy of the book, but I think pretty much everyone knows what a laptop looks like. Also, much of the dialogue between the teenage characters did not ring true to me.
It also bugged me that Vivian's story was told in the first person but Molly's was told in the third person. I guess Vivian's storyline is supposed to be the story of her life that she tells Molly, but we don't even know about this until well into the book, so switching the POV seemed odd.
The characters: many of them were one-dimensional and stereotypical. The bitchy foster mom who watches reality TV and thinks vegetarians are weird. The former beauty queen who got pregnant and became a housekeeper. The boyfriend who really has no personality whatsoever. And of course Molly herself, a supposed juvenile delinquent who has actually done nothing worse than get a nose ring (gasp!) and try to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from the library (the horror!)
The plot: The entire premise was weak as well. I was never really clear on how Molly's behavior was supposed to land her in juvenile detention, or how cleaning out Vivian's attic counted as community service. But have no fear, because everything works out perfectly for everyone in the end, and of course Molly is really a misunderstood teenager with a heart of gold. Also all the talk about how she was so eager to shed her piercings and her Goth persona was a bit heavy handed and judgmental. And how did Molly, who had practically no possessions to her name, own a smartphone and a laptop? Also, for a book called Orphan Train, I figured it would include more of the actual history of the orphan trains, but that part of the story is actual over in the first few chapters. And, there are so many parallels between the two characters' stories that a couple of times I got confused who she was even talking about. If that wasn't bad enough, she actually repeats some of the same sentences word for word, first in the Vivian story and later in the Molly story.
Interesting topic but could have been much better.
on April 29, 2013
A solid piece of historical fiction, this story captured me from beginning to end. The ending was perfect, leaving me with a good feeling. The past and the present are beautifully woven together through Vivian and Molly, while spinning a tale of twisting emotions.
Seventeen year old Molly, a foster child who is about to be too old for foster care, is given fifty hours of community service for trying to steal a book. In the past nine years, Molly has been in over a dozen foster homes, some for as little as a week. She's become very defiant. The one thing Molly hates most about the foster care system is the dependence on people you barely know, your vulnerability to their whims. She has learned not to live a life of expectations. She's not too keen on devoting fifty hours of her life to Vivian in a drafty attic, going through endless boxes of stuff.
Ninety one year old Vivian Daly, lives in a fourteen room victorian mansion and wants to have her attic cleaned out with the help of Molly. There are many boxes to be opened and Vivian's past is soon revealed. Vivian's family left Ireland for America in 1929 in hopes of a brighter future, thinking they were on their way to a land of plenty. But, they failed miserably, ill suited for the rigors of emigration. The family meets with tragedy and Vivian is soon on her way to the mid-west on the orphan train - headed for the unknown.
I was not at all familiar with this strange and little known episode in our nation's history. The orphan trains existed from 1854 - 1929. Each child has a sad tale; they wouldn't be on the train otherwise. They are told that they are lucky to be on this orphan train. They are leaving an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty and vice, for the nobility of country life. They had simple rules to adhere to and if they didn't obey these rules, they would be sent back to where they came from and discharged on the street, left to fend for themselves.
Adoptive parents gathered at the train stations looking for a child to adopt. A child is selected for free on a ninety-day trial, at which point, they had the right to send the child back. But, too many times the children were abused. Babies and healthy older boys were typically chosen first. Older girls were chosen last. If a child wasn't chosen, they'd get back on the train and try again at the next town.
The author brings richness and life to this compelling story - completely absorbing and wonderfully written. I highly recommend.
on April 9, 2013
I remember at the age of 10 or so reading a novel about the late-19th and early 20th-century orphan trains, which took children and babies from East Coast slums and brought them to the Midwest, where they were given an opportunity for a potentially prosperous new life in the fresh rural air. Not until I read Christina Baker Kline's book, however, did I realize just how romanticized this version was. Orphan Train is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting story about this historical phenomenon.
The novel starts in the present day, on the coast of Maine, as 17-year-old Molly Ayer is assigned to do 50 hours of community service as punishment for attempting to steal a school library book. Molly, a foster child who has a particularly tenuous and stressful relationship with her most recent foster mother, is worried about being sent away. So her boyfriend's mother, who cleans house for an old lady, Vivian Daly, suggests that Molly help Vivian clean out the boxes of old stuff that are clogging half of the woman's attic.
Molly is not sure what to expect, or what Vivian will think of her. She has a Goth sensibility with the looks to match, including many piercings and tattoos. At first, her meetings with Vivian are hours to endure, but soon she finds herself absorbed by Vivian's story and astonished by the connections to her own life.
Vivian, who immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a young girl, was originally named Niamh. When her entire family is killed in a fire in 1929, nine-year-old Niamh is turned over to a children's charity and put on an orphan train, sent to Minnesota in the hopes of finding a new home. Like Molly, though, Niamh's road to a loving home is anything but easy. After having made a fast friend on the journey west, Niamh is separated from him when she is not chosen at the first orphan train stop in Minneapolis. Instead, she arrives in a small Minnesota town, where she starts on a years-long journey toward finding something even remotely resembling a home. She's neglected, abused, overworked, underfed, and treated as slave labor. Only as a young woman is she finally able to find peace and something that looks like home.
As Molly learns Vivian's story, the parallels to her own story become more and more clear. She comes to see Vivian as both a confidante and a friend, someone who can help her and who she possibly can help, too.
Readers who are unfamiliar with this episode in American history might be surprised to learn about the hardships and be struck by the parallels between Niamh/Vivian's experience nearly a hundred years ago and the foster care system today. The afterword includes historical information, including a number of photographs, that will also help bring the period to life.
- Norah Piehl