Book Nook: Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Mama Vicky’s Book Nook

I am so excited and happy to report that I have actually been able to do some pleasure reading over the last week. Yay! I have had the joy of sitting on my big fanny on the couch with my feet propped up on the ottoman just reading page after page. Once in a while I’d toss in a nibble of Hershey’s chocolate here and there. I was sure I had died and gone to heaven.

This would be the time that our rotten rodent of a Chihuahua would horn in on my bliss by worming his way onto my lap, displacing my book, and demanding “ultimate pets.” (This is our family term for the ongoing rubs from head to toe that Mr. Pete demands on a non-stop basis.) Because of him I came to the realization that I am not in heaven yet, but I would say I was pretty close.

I finished two books (and am close to finishing a 3rd one). This review is on a book that is currently on the best seller list and also happened to be the February choice for our church women’s book club. This was a very good read.


Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline

Have you ever heard the term “orphan train?” Did you know that actual orphan trains ran from the east coast to the Midwest for over 50 years? I love American history and have done a lot of history reading in my time, but I have never come across anything about these trains.

The orphan trains ran from the mid-1850s to 1929. These trains were run by the Children’s Aid Society who considered their work to be benevolent. The goal was to find these eastern orphans a home and family in the Midwest, ultimately to be adopted. The society took orphans off the street, placed them in their orphanage, fed and clothed them, and gave them a clean bed to sleep in. This didn’t last long for the children would be ushered onto the orphan trains. They were presided over by a male and female chaperone. The trains would stop off in different towns across the Midwest, and the children would be put on display in a public square to be looked over by the citizens. Looking the children over often included inspecting their mouths for good teeth, their arms, and their limbs to see if they were strong and sturdy, and their hair for lice. Irish children were often the last chosen as there was a lot of bigotry against the Irish during that time.

Those who were chosen by families would go with them to a new home. Those not chosen would get back on the train and go on to the next town for inspection and possible adoption. Sadly, many of these orphans did not find amiable family circumstances but instead were relegated to the status of indentured servants. Some were beaten and some not fed well. Some were not allowed to go to school as the terms of the adoption required.

This book begins with a troubled foster girl named Molly. She is half Penobscot Indian. Her father was a drunk and eventually died in a car crash. Her mother is a drug addict. Molly has been in the foster care system for most of her young life and things have not gone well. She is currently living with a couple in which the foster mother can barely hide her feelings of disgust towards Molly.

Molly has gone Goth and uses this appearance to keep people at a distance. The teens at school consider her to be a freak and they keep their distance. She has found that it is too painful to get close to people and then later have those bonds severed. Despite outward appearances Molly is very smart and loves to read. One day she steals an old copy of Jane Eyre from the library and is caught. Her penalty is 50 hours of community service.  An arrangement is made for her to work with a 90 year old wealthy woman.  The two have nothing in common and it is dubious as to how this is going to work out.

Meet Niamh (pronounced Neev) Power who has a sad story of her own. Niamh is a young girl from Ireland who comes with her family to America via Ellis Island. The family finds that America is not paved with gold. They are very poor and end up in a tenement in New York City, barely surviving. A fire occurs and part of her family dies. Her mother and little sister aren’t found. Niamh, now an orphan, is taken to the orphanage, her name is changed to something “American”, and off to the orphan train she goes.

As Molly and the old woman work together a strange story unfolds.  The two women are not so different after all. Each character goes through a metamorphosis that is sad, bitter, healing, and hopeful at the same time.

Though this story is presented as a novel and the two main characters are the author’s invention, it is based on true events in American history. I highly recommend this book as a great read. I see a motion picture made from this book in the future.

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