Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

In Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, she narrates the story of a practice meant to be kind that was often cruel.  Due to the waves of immigration, epidemics of illnesses and the difficulty of living in poverty, many children were left as orphans.  Many families had multiple children who were set adrift when their parents died or disappeared.  Organizations sprang up to help with the problem and the orphan trains were created.  Large numbers of children from the big Eastern cities were shipped to the Midwest where couples looking for children could adopt them.

That was the way it was supposed to work.  In reality, many families were only looking for free labor.  Boys were taken as farm hands while girls were used as maids, nannies and other darker occupations.  Families were torn apart and the children were often even stripped of their names and renamed to suit their new families.  It was, in many ways, indentured servitude.

Vivian Daly, a ninety-one year old widow, was one of those children.  She came over in the great Irish immigration and lost her family in a tenement fire.  Handy with a needle and desperate for an education, she grew up in a series of households, never quite belonging anywhere or to anyone.  As she nears the end of her life, Molly Ayer enters it.  Molly has a similar background in modern America,  Her father was killed in a car accident, her mother couldn't cope and was hospitalized, and Molly entered the foster care system, where she also bounced from family to family.  When she needs community service hours to avoid juvie, she meets Vivian and agrees to help her sort out her lifetime of possessions.

As they sort through Vivian's possessions, the older woman starts to share her memories of that painful time with Molly.  Molly instantly relates and a relationship develops between the two women regardless of the decades in age separating them.  They are sisters under the skin, both belonging to the group that never fit in anywhere or who could afford to trust anyone.  Slowly, as the trunks and boxes are sorted, they also sort out their feelings and secrets and learn to trust each other.

This is a charming novel.  The reader will be sympathetic with Vivian and Molly, and ache that there is no better solution for the children left alone in the world.  Although we no longer use mechanisms such as the orphan train, for many foster children the end result remains the same.  One of the most surprising things is the time period.  This occurred around the 1920's, not in the 1800's.  Both the main characters are believable and strong and the reader will hope for a better life for each of them.  This book is recommended foe readers of more recent historical fiction and those interested in reading how the human spirit can overcome tragedy.

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