BOOKS: Orphan Train

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Orphan Train
A should read, if not a must read

By Christina Baker Kline

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The story
A captivating story of two very different women who bond unexpectedly: one, a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past; the other, a troubled adolescent who seeks answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

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Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

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Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers 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.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, 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 second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

The story re-interpreted
Our protagonists: Molly, the indigenous teen sent from one foster home to another, has been court ordered to complete 50 hrs of community work and contracts to complete this responsibility with Vivian, a 91 year old whose chronological age belies a snappy and dyanmically vibrant intellect; Vivian, the old lady who accepts Molly to complete her community work obligation by helping to clean out her huge attic, a storehouse of nearly a century of mementoes, nostalgic memorabilia, and souvenirs of events and people in her past long ago; finally, Niamh Power, the your Irish girl, whose large pennyless family emigrates to New York City in the 1920’s with hope of escaping the boundaries of poverty in which they live. A disastrous rooming house fire leaves Niamh orphaned, alone and in the care of the New York City Children’s Aid Society. The CAS puts Niamh on the orphan train bound for the American midwest of the 1920’s and an unknown life determined by destiny and fate. The story begins.

Molly is a teen toughened and hardened by cycling through many foster homes. She expects her community work obligation will end up being drudgery and tedium. How wrong she is.

Vivian, maybe she is lonely, maybe she is lucky, maybe fate has taken a hand in tying the loose ends of her life mosaic into a neat and satisfying knot before she yields the mortal coil, decides Molly will do for the attic cleaning task.

The story is an interweaving and ongoing development of the relationship between Vivian and the incremental emotional and psychological changes Molly undergoes as she completes her children’s ward obligation.

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Emotional rollercoaster
The tale is an emotional rollercoaster of anecdotes and narratives from early 19th century rural Minnesota. Based on true events, Orphan Train is primarily the story of one of these orphans from disembarcation from the orphan train in Albans, Minnesota to her surprising appearance as the nonagenarian partner to Molly’s community work endeavour. The story tugs at heart strings when one reads of Niamh’s trials and physical ordeals. Many of these orphans were seen as fodder for farmers and older couples more in need of cheap labourers than foster children whom they could look after.

Niamh shows a courageous streak, a steely backbone of serious mettle as she bends to indescribable physical struggles, but does not break. Somehow she digs to unknown personal depths to find the strength to persevere and conquer her emotional and physical battles. Like cream, Niamh endures, eventually rising to the top to become a successful general store manager in Minnesota during the depression era.

An omen for the future, Niamh is forced to change her first name a number of times to suit the personal and cultural whims of her foster carers; first Niamh, then Dorothy and finally, Vivian. Her claddagh, a keepsake piece of jewellry given to her by her Irish ‘gram,’ becomes her anchor, her bond binding her to her Irish heritage and her family roots.

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She endures and survives, eventually succeeding in business and marrying another of the orphan train passengers whom she had befriended on her transportation out to the Midwest.

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Dutchy, the young and dynamic, piano playing husband enlists in the American navy and is shipped to fight the Japanese in the Pacific leaving behind a pregnant Vivian. Not surprisingly, Dutchy is killed in the war. Months later, Vivian has a baby girl but shockingly, she gives her up for adoption without ever looking back as to how her daughter is growing up and doing in life…until…Spruce Harbour, Maine.

Why Orphan Train is an enjoyable read
Christina Baker Kline has written a number of books. She was inspired to write Orphan Train by the story of her own grandparents who were part of the orphan train social experiment of 19th century American sociological history. She was writer in residence at Fordham University and recipient of numerous writing fellowships. Her writing credentials are unquestionable.

Orphan Train required extensive research and numerous interviews; a rich lode of sources existed when the kernel for Kline’s story germinated. The estimated number of descendants of train orphans is two million. Kline had the challenging task of developing a good story with a continuous and attractive thread binding the reader to it. She succeeded, admirably.

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Ranked among best sellers, the writing is polished and captivating. The characters, like salt and pepper, spice and blend the flavours of the tale ceaselessly. The book’s chapters are short and work as active assistants to move the reader through the narrative.

Heart warming or maudlin
Some readers possibly jaded by the hardened concrete of cynicism may label the book as mawkish or melodramatic manipulation. The more sentimentally open-hearted will accept the narrative at face value, a story of the indomitability of the human spirit. The human soul will always conquer, a truism as the raison d’etre for life, one which Kline likely would heartily support.

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Final word
Though many readers might find the book not of the highest recommendations because it lacks serious depth and great intellectual complexity, nevertheless, most readers would find it to be a very enjoyable read. Hitting the bestseller listing confirms it.

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