Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, Orphan Train was published this spring to wide acclaim, quickly reaching the New York Times Bestseller list.
I pre-ordered this novel and eagerly anticipated its arrival. The immigrant experience fascinates me, perhaps because my ancestors arrived in Ellis Island and dispersed to other states to forge a better life. Some families fared better than others; some stayed together, many did not.
Ann Packer wrote: “A lovely novel about the search for family that also happens to illuminate a fascinating and forgotten chapter of American history. Beautiful.”
Vivian Daly was once Niamh Power, a nine-year-old Irish girl whose "unfortunate" red hair puts off the Midwesterners choosing orphans arriving on the train from New York City’s Children’s Aid Society.
A toddler Niamh’s bonded with is wrenched from her arms at the first stop and a troublemaker she’s befriended is snatched up right away for farm labor. Niamh travels on a heart-wrenching journey from one dire environment to another. When finally she is taken in by a family with an inside privy, air vents and ample food (“…and fruits, even exotic ones like oranges and bananas”), she feels safe for the first time in her short life.
“It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.”
Over eighty years later, Molly Ayers is a foster child in need of community service to wipe clean her record. Her crime? She’s stolen a copy of Jane Eyre, the most beat up version on the shelf because she thought no one would miss it.
Molly finds herself agreeing to help ninety-year-old Vivian clean out her attic, which holds remnants of the old woman’s past. These two women have more in common than either imagines and neither is prepared for the journey they will take together.
In spare prose, Christina Baker Kline created a beautifully written novel that balances the gritty realities of orphans in the Depression era to those in present-day. The reader is never told how to feel, but is shown in nuanced action and atmospheric detail. I highly recommend this novel to not only readers of historical fiction, but to anyone looking to root for two most endearing characters.