Monday, December 8, 2014

Orphan Train - Christina Baker Kline

These days, I seem to be picking novels that have two parallel stories going that build to tell a more complete tale and explore common themes. Christina Baker Kline's novel is one more of that ilk. In it, her modern day protagonist, Molly completes a school oral history project in which she must ask an interviewee questions about their lives and change. What did you choose to take with you? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain? Deep questions, all.

Molly is a teenager that will be aging out the foster care system at the end of her high school experience. She has been shuttled about from one foster family to the next over the years. She travels light. She guards her emotions and puts on a Goth facade that isolates her from those around her at school. She tries to never get too close to anyone, as she never knows when she'll be pulled from one family and school to be plunked down in another.

Vivian Daly is an elderly retiree, living in her vacation home in nearby Bar Harbor, Maine. Before retiring, she lead a life as a successful department store owner in Minnesota and has decided that her attic must be cleaned out, but can't manage the heavy work it takes to jockey boxes and cartons, filled with nearly a century of life's artifacts and detritus.

Molly, gets in trouble with the local library when she attempts to steal a book. In order to avoid legal hassles with the foster care system, she signs on to do community service hours and gets hooked up with Vivian Daly. She will volunteer to help Mrs. Daly clean out her attic and thus begins a wonderful friendship. Both characters are guarded about being too open with each other, but as time goes by and the community service hours mount up, Molly and Vivian find common bonds that will help each of them ponder the losses they've had in life, the important things and values that they have carried with them over time, and the need for true emotional connection with others.

I was talking with a friend about this book. She was saying that the local middle school teachers were looking at this book as a read for their students. We both thought it more appropriate for high school. The reading level is not difficult, but the content and topic seemed a bit advanced for young kids. This book deals with immigration and the prejudices that were common during the early 1900's towards immigrants, family losses, abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, rape, the orphan trains that ran from eastern urban centers to midwest towns that brokered 'homes' for young street children and orphans, modern day foster care and the problems with oversight, building emotional relationships and mending those that are 'broken' emotionally. Deep topics, all. I honestly thought discussion of the topics would be more fruitful with older kids. The issues of authority and system failure when abuse and rape are involved would be valuable discussions for teens to explore these days, given what we're seeing in the press.  The issues of immigration and how we deal with the poor and needy could also be valuable discussions with older kids, but could be too 'gritty' for middle school aged kids (IMHO). The historical topic of the orphan trains is pretty complex too and worthy of further research to find out the true stories of thousands of children who were shuttled out of the cities in a Progressive Era social experiment that, while well-meaning, was poorly monitored in many cases. So ... this novel has a lot of 'meat' for a simple story.

The themes don't bog down the story, but they're there. Kline moves her novel along really well, jumping between modern day Maine and Depression-era Minnesota. The reader learns of the tough start to Vivian Daly's life as she is shifted from one foster family to the next during her early teen years. Molly, in finding out certain details of Vivian's life sees the perfect interviewee for her history project and in the process must confront those questions in her own life. All ends well in this book, but one is left to wonder about those thousands of kids and their real life stories ...

A fast and thought-provoking read ...


  1. Sounds fascinating...and I thought you were reviewing another book by the same title. Something about delving into an attic, especially someone else's, appeals to me. I agree with you...some things should be saved for a later age because of content.

  2. Vee! The other book that is so similar was What She Left Behind ... so odd that I have gravitated to these books so close in time!