Christina Baker Kline – Orphan Train
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary/Historical Fiction
Started: 28 September 2014
Finished: 02 October 2014
Where did it come from? A local indie bookstore.
Why do I have it? It was my book club pick for the month.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 23 June 2014.
Let’s get these mother-
effing orphans off of this
(Gah, I’m sorry. I’m the worst. But I just can’t help myself sometimes.)
Summary: Molly is a seventeen-year-old who has spent most of her life in a series of foster homes. When she get in trouble – again – her boyfriend suggests that she do her community service helping the widow that his mom works for clean out her attic. Molly’s not terribly keen on the project, but she also doesn’t want to risk getting kicked out of yet another foster home and winding up in juvvie, so she goes along with the idea. What she finds surprises her: she and Mrs. Daly turn out to have quite a bit in common. Mrs. Daly was born Niamh Power, an Irish girl who immigrated with her family to New York when she was a child. But shortly thereafter, her family died in a fire, and she was put onto a train, along with hundreds of other orphans, bound for Minnesota, where the children would be adopted by Midwestern families. But most of those families were not looking for extra children, but rather for extra helping hands that could be had for cheap, and Niamh, like Molly, had to grow up without ever having a place to really call home, or a family to look out for her.
Review: This book had two of the things I really like: historical fiction set in a period that I didn’t know much about, and intertwining past and present storylines. I had never heard of the Orphan Trains before, but they were a real thing that ran for 75 years, that transported two hundred thousand (!) children from the East Coast to the Midwest. It seems so foreign to our sensibilities now, but at the time it was seen as an act of charity – despite the potential for abuses rampant in the system. So I really enjoyed learning about that, and also getting a look at life in 1920s Minnesota, which was a little more familiar to me.
The intertwining past and present storylines were interesting, if not as well-done as they could have been. The parallels between Vivian’s and Molly’s stories are abundant, and Kline resists the temptation to make them overly explicit, trusting her readers enough to make the comparisons for themselves (or with their book clubs, in my case). But at the same time, the connection between the actual telling of the stories themselves was not particularly strong. Essentially, the context of the historical chapters is never quite clear: they’re in first person, so the implication is that it’s Vivian telling these things to Molly, but they start in the book well before Molly and Vivian trust each other enough to begin talking in earnest. There’s also a hint that the story is triggered by things they are finding in the attic, but if that’s the case, again, it doesn’t quite fit that they’re finding these things in exactly chronological order, when the whole point of Molly being there was to help organize the attic. Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but I tend to find context pretty important when a book contains a story within a story, and it didn’t quite add up in this one. And that was pretty indicative of my opinion of the writing in general: I really enjoyed the story itself, but the telling of it felt fairly flat, and that sucked some of the air out of the story itself, making it not as emotional or powerful as it should have been. It was an interesting story about an interesting bit of American history, and it raised a lot of topics for discussion in a book club, but I don’t think it’s going to leave much of a lasting impact on me. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Although I read a fair bit of historical fiction, I’m having a hard time coming up with similar books to recommend. I guess fans of contemporary fiction, stories about orphans, and those interested in turn-of-the-century prairie life would probably find this most interesting.
First Line: I believe in ghosts.
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