If you don't already know you might be surprised to learn that Orphan Train is set around the real-life events. In one of the strangest and, to me, saddest occurrences in living memory, in the period between 1854 and 1929 US government, under the guise of the welfare program called Orphan Train Movement, relocated around 250,000 orphaned and abandoned children from crowded East Coast cities to the Midwest. Once there, children were taken to foster homes, situated largely in rural areas.
image source: http://www.program-source.com
The general idea behind the project was noble. The plan was to help the unfortunate children by placing them straight into a functional family life but sadly what often happened was that children were traveling to Midwest in truly appalling conditions. Once there, for the majority things would turn even worse. Historical accounts suggest that children were often treated like they were in a zoo - they would be put on stage and would have to perform to impress their future families. Often their muscles and teeth were checked. Unsurprisingly, some of the more vehement critics described the entire program as a form of slavery where children were placed in the position of indentured servitude to the foster family..
These historical events provide a backdrop to Christina Baker Kline's excellent fifth novel Orphan Train. Through her two characters Kline draws the parallels between 91 year old Vivian Daly, an immigrant from Ireland who, due to her unfortunate luck, ends of journeying on one of these trains and Molly, troubled seventeen-year-old Penobscot Indian foster teen. Their paths cross when Molly is caught stealing a copy of her favorite book (Jane Eyre) from their local library. She ends up having to do community service which means cleaning out Vivian Daly’s attic. They start out on wrong foot because Molly, seeing where and how Vivian is living, approaches her with prejudices. But when the attic reveals Vivian's past, despite their difference in age, Vivian and Molly discover that they have much in common and soon they find comfort in each other.
Both are dislocated in space, without a clear sense of home. Both of them spent years being passed from foster family to family and Molly learns from Vivian's vivid experiences. Slowly she discovers that the most important thing she has is herself. Kline's prose is often hard on the reader but it is never unnecessarily.
Beautifully written, Orphan Train is a heartfelt and moving tale about finding friendship and solace in the unlikeliest of places. A gem of a book.