ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

I first learned about the orphan trains – trains that transported orphan children from New York City to the midwest between the late 1880s and 1921 – this summer when I read The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. It’s a fascinating – and heartbreaking – little slice of American history and I was definitely intrigued. So when I learned that one of my favorite authors, Christina Baker Kline, had written a novel about the orphan trains, I knew I had to read it. Thankfully I got my hands on a review copy of Kline’s Orphan Train, which goes on sale in April 2013.

Orphan Train opens in New York City in 1929, when an 8-year old Irish immigrant named Niamh is orphaned after an apartment fire kills her mother and siblings. After a short stint in an orphanage, she finds herself on a train to Minnesota, which stops in small towns where relocated orphans, dressed in their best clothes, stand on stages and hope to be adopted by local families. While some of these orphans find happy homes, others are adopted by farmers or merchants looking for free labor.  It’s hard to imagine the loneliness and disorientation these children must have experienced on these trains, not knowing what awaited them and having no control over their fates, but Kline does an admirable job of putting herself into their shoes.

The chapters about Niamh’s life in Minnesota alternate with present day Maine, where another young woman named Molly is similarly untethered and alone. Having bounced from foster home to foster home, she is hardened and mildly rebellious, causing her to owe community service hours in lieu of juvenile detention. She ends up putting in those hours cleaning out the attic of an elderly resident, who is a present-day Niamh (now Vivien). Kline follows Niamh’s life from the day she stepped off the train to the present, and explores how Molly and Niamh come to discover all that they have in common.

I love Kline’s writing here (just as I loved it in Bird in Hand) and I thought her story was fascinating. It veered to the dramatic/predictable at one point – a chance meeting with a true love, etc. – but even that didn’t bother me. Orphan Train was a pretty fast and fluid read – it flowed well and always kept me interested.  And it was also very sad at times – especially this passage:

I find myself retreating to someplace deep inside. 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.

Kline creates in Niamh a strong heroine – one who doesn’t pity herself despite her awful childhood, yet who is still accessible to the reader and totally sympathetic.

Orphan Train doesn’t come out until April – I will do a reminder post when it goes on sale. I highly recommend this one!

Thanks to Morrow for the review copy. You have no idea how excited I was to get it.