Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train (2013) is a young adult novel.
Near the end of a series of stays in abusive foster homes, seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer tries to steal her favorite book Jane Eyre. The librarian catches her, and to avoid juvenile detention, Molly has to serve 50 hours of community service.
She ends up helping ninety-one-year-old Vivian Daly organize her attic.
Vivian came to depression era Minnesota on an orphan train. She was one of tens of thousands of orphans sent on trains to the Midwest. Mostly well-intentioned people farmed the children out, often to abusive families.
Through a series of frightening and fortuitous events, Vivian ended up in Spruce Harbor, Maine, where, near the end of her life, Molly came to help her organize her attic.
Molly and Vivian are both orphans. As different as they are (Molly comes from Penobscot Indian ancestors and Vivian from Irish immigrants), they have much in common. And they come to love one another.
Orphan Train is a story of portaging. When the Wabanakis Indian tribe carried their canoes from one river to another, they had to decide what to leave and what to take. They had to travel light but to take with them what they valued.
Molly learns about portaging from a compassionate teacher. It occurs to Molly that both she and Vivian have had to portage, decide what to leave and what to take, along the way. (An especially sad part of the story has Vivian giving up her new born child.)
At one point, Molly tells her boyfriend Jack about what turtles mean to her Native American ancestors. “Turtles carry their homes on their backs. They’re exposed and hidden at the same time. They’re a symbol of strength and perseverance.”
And at another point Molly listens to the tapes of Vivian’s story and understands, “Vivian has come back to the idea that the people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most ordinary moments. They’re with us in the grocery store, as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles.”
Orphan Train is a hopeful story. Vivian takes Molly in as she escapes the last abuse. And Molly helps Vivian find people she loves.
Christina Baker Kline tells her story in present time laced with flashback chapters.
I came to Orphan Train for two reasons: (1) A book group at our retirement center chose it to read; and (2) I knew an elderly married couple both of whom came to St. Louis as children on an orphan train. My two friends never seemed happy. I always wondered what their stories might be. They were too old and disabled to tell me.
As I read Orphan Train, I found myself thinking about how many of the orphans must have had even sadder stories than Vivian's. For many, there were surely no happy endings.