Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train

Click here to purchase Orphan Train

Click here to watch a 90-second book trailer

Book Details (via amazon.com)

  • Paperback: 278 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; F First Edition edition (April 2, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061950726
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061950728

Book Synopsis (via amazon.com)

Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is an unforgettable story of friendship and second chances that highlights a little-known but historically significant movement in America’s past—and it includes a special PS section for book clubs featuring insights, interviews, and more.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My Review

((Disclaimer: My review does not contain spoilers about the book per se, however it does contains info and personal opinions about the orphan train movement.  There are quotes from the book included.  If you do not know the history behind orphan trains, and do not wish to know the history going into the book, then stop here))

As some of you may know, I got the chance to attend a book signing/meet the author event for Orphan Trane last week.   It was an amazing experience!  You can read more about it  here.  I had actually held off on purchasing  the book, so that I could buy a copy of the book at this event and have the author, Christina Baker Kline, sign it.  At first, I worried that not reading the book before the event would be a mistake, however I am glad I opted to not read it beforehand.  After listening to Kline’s presentation on the history of orphan trains,  it made me a more informed reader.  While reading the book, I was more aware of the symbolism and themes that Kline was trying to convey that I may have otherwise missed.

Side Note: I have never been one to write in books.  Usually I take notes in a separate notebook, drawing connections, asking questions, and writing down my favorite quotes.  However, I found myself writing down an idea, symbol, quote, etc, on almost every page while reading the Orphan Train… To save time, and my sanity, I started underlining in my book.  Gasp!  Don’t worry, I used a pencil… I’m not a barbarian 🙂

I was pretty much hooked from the prologue.  It was almost eerie… a foreshadowing of what was to come.

I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is – a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.

Orphan Train is told by two different perspectives, one by Molly in the present, and the other by Vivian from 1929 through 1943.  This is one of those books that weaves back and forth through time and shifting between different perspectives.  Molly is a 17-year-old who has spent many years in the foster care system and has bounced from foster home to foster home.  She is misunderstood and heavily guarded, putting up a front to keep people out.  A certain event occurs, which then leads Molly to Vivian.  At first it seems that they have little in common, but as the book progresses, we learn that there are many parallels between their stories.   The majority of the book is about Vivian, and her experience as an orphan train rider.

Since I was given the chance to listen to the author speak about the history of the real orphan trains, I knew her portrayal was not exaggerated.  I was appalled at how these kids were treated.  They were looked down upon as having tainted blood, and therefore treated as no more than property.

“The good citizens of Chicago no doubt view you as ruffians, thieves, and beggars, hopeless sinners who have not a chance in the world of being redeemed.”

“The child you select is yours for free,” he adds, “on a ninety-day trial. At which point, if you so choose, you may send him back.

  The psychological implications of being treated this way was a huge theme in the book.  Kline did an incredible job conveying the emotions and feelings that these kids went through.  Feelings of shame, worthlessness, incompleteness, being unloved, being unwanted, being looked down upon, etc.

“I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside.  It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in.  I feel a decade older than my years.  I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary.  So I am 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.”

This passage, for me, was the most powerful passage in the book.  I really felt the utter despair when I read it.

The story was quick paced and held my attention throughout the entire book.  I was emotionally connected to the characters.   The best authors, in my opinion, are able to get their audience to actually feel what the characters are feeling, and Kline did just that in Orphan Train.   My only critique would be that I felt that it was too short.  A few times I felt that certain characters, relationships, and back stories were not developed enough.  Kline would introduce a certain character or event, then Kline would move on without expanding.  It was almost as if the book could only be a certain length, so parts were left underdeveloped.  It is possible that this was intentional, to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions, however it just left me wanting more in certain parts of the book.

I’ve never really put much thought into kids in the foster care system.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a middle class family with both parents.  I now understand how much I have taken that for granted. I think one of my biggest take aways from this book is the realization that some kids in our current foster care system are on their own “orphan train journey.”   You hear foster care horror stories all too often… abuse, neglect, fraud, etc.  Kids bouncing around from home to home.  How many of these kids go through similar situations as Molly and Vivian did?  Do they have these same feelings of worthlessness, shame, and despair?

This book is definitely not going to be for everyone.  I would label this book as being an “emotionally heavy” book.  It is the kind of book that will weigh heavy on your heart after you have finished.  I would not recommend reading this book if you are sensitive to any kind of physical, verbal, or sexual child abuse.  There are a few, what I would consider, graphic scenes.

Hopefully this does not scare you away from reading this book.  I think this is an important story to hear.

 My rating: 4/5 stars

About the Author (via amazon.com)

ChristinaBakerKlineChristina Baker Kline was born in Cambridge, England, and raised there as well as in the American South and Maine. She is the author of five novels: Orphan Train, Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water. She is co-editor, with Anne Burt, of About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror and co-author, with Christina L. Baker, of The Conversation Begins: Mothers and Daughters Talk about Living Feminism. She has edited three other anthologies: Child of Mine, Room to Grow, and Always Too Soon. Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University from 2007 to 2011, Kline has also taught literature and creative writing at Yale, NYU, UVA, and Drew University. A graduate of Yale, Cambridge University, and the University of Virginia, where she was a Hoyns Fellow in Fiction Writing, Kline is a recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellowship and several research fellowships, and has been a Writer-in-Residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Kline lives with husband and three sons in Montclair, New Jersey. She is at work on another novel and an anthology.

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