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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Orphan Train by Christina Kline Baker

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-04-195072-8
Trade paperback, $14.99, 273 pages

Two years ago I read Laura Moriarty’s novel The Chaperone, about a woman who chaperoned a young Louise Brooks on a summer trip to New York City in the 1920s. As a young child, the woman was part of the orphan train, coming from New York City to Kansas to be adopted.

I had never heard of orphan trains and was shocked to discover that 200,000 children from 1854-1929 were taken on these trains to be adopted. Many children were adopted by loving families, but many others were used as indentured servants to work farms and care for other children.

Christina Baker Kline’s novel Orphan Train shares the story of two women- Vivian and Molly. Molly is a teenage foster child, living with a couple in a small harbor town in Maine. The situation is not ideal; the woman of the house mistrusts and dislikes Molly.

Molly steals an old copy of Jane Eyre from the library and as punishment has to do 50 hours of community service. She ends up helping 90-year-old Vivian clean out her attic.

Molly discovers that Vivian was on the orphan train and this is where the story is strongest. Vivian and her family came over from Ireland to New York City. Her father and brothers were killed in a fire, and her sister was also believed to have perished. Her mother became mentally ill and Vivian was put on the orphan train, hoping to be adopted by loving parents.

Vivian’s story is heartbreaking and so hard to imagine. She was eight-years-old and in charge of caring for a baby boy (whom she had never met) on the train. The story is so vividly written, and Kline’s thorough research adds so much to this sad tale.

Just thinking about those children, forced to stand on a stage and be inspected by people looking at their teeth, their bones, their skin, like they were some kind of farm animal, shocked me.

Vivian is taken in by a couple and when she arrives at their home, finds that they have several women working for them sewing clothes. Vivian is expected to join them as free labor. She sleeps on a pallet on the floor and is not sent to school as is required by the law.

When the Depression hits, the business disappears and Vivian is sent to another family. This situation is even worse; a severely impoverished family with too many little children and not enough food. Vivian is expected to care for the children, but her saving grace is that she goes to school.

There she meets the teacher Miss Larsen, who comes to Vivian’s aid when her situation at the new place becomes intolerable. Vivian ends up at the home of a shopkeeper and his wife, where she blossoms helping the shopkeepers in their business.

Molly’s story is less intriguing, perhaps because it is more familiar to us. She begins to bond with Vivian, as they have more in common than they could have imagined.  Molly gets Vivian to open up about her past and it changes both of their lives.

The characters in Orphan Train, particularly Vivian, Molly and Molly’s boyfriend Jack (who is reading Junot Diaz in a passage) are fascinating and multi-dimensional. Vivian’s story made me wish I had talked to my grandparents about what their lives were like, the things they dealt with and overcame.

This book, like Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife, will make you look at your grandparents as people who had lives so different from our own. This was a strong generation.

If you read The Chaperone, Orphan Train is a must-read for you. Anyone who like stories about strong women and historical fiction, will enjoy Orphan Train. The P.S. section at the end is also interesting, where Kline shares how she found this amazing story.

Rating 4 of 5

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. Christina's other stops are:

Tuesday, June 25th: BoundbyWords
Thursday, June 27th: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, July 2nd: Turn the Page
Wednesday, July 3rd: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Monday, July 15th: Tina’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, July 16th: A Patchwork of Books
Tuesday, July 23rd: Time 2 Read
Thursday, July 25th: bookchickdi
Thursday, August 1st: Life in the Thumb
Friday, August 2nd: West Metro Mommy
Thursday, August 8th: Literary Feline
Tuesday, August 13th: A Bookish Way of Life
Monday, August 19th: nomadreader

My review of The Chaperone is here.
My blog post on Christina Baker Kline's talk at the Center For Fiction is here. 
My review of The Shoemaker's Wife is here.


  1. I can't believe I haven't read this yet! I'm fascinated with the idea of the orphan trains.

  2. I really enjoyed THE CHAPERONE and am looking forward to learning more about orphan trains from this book.

    Thanks for being on the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  3. I liked the story a lot because it seems very realistic and shows how a rebellious 16 year old and a senior citizen can connect, share and understand similar experiences, despite their significant age difference. It's also a story that shows that despite superficial appearances, we all have hurts and wounds. By getting to know one another better, we connect.