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Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: Orphan Train


Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline
paperback, 304 pages
William Morrow 
a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

Orphan Train is an expertly paced and deeply absorbing novel about belonging, identity, and the possibility of love. I am just in love with this book! Christina Baker Kline chose a fascinating period in American history as the subject of her fifth novel:  from 1854-1929 orphans (usually immigrant children)were sent on "orphan trains" to the Midwest, where they were offered for adoption. Orphans adopted under these circumstances might be adopted by a loving family, or they might be exploited as labor---or worse. The practice shows a casual indifference to the emotional and sometimes the physical health of the children; it is unimaginable today. 

The historical material behind Orphan Train is so powerful and full of inherent drama, that it could easily lend itself to melodrama or easy emotion. But Kline shows incredible delicacy and restraint, and the result is a novel that is deeply moving and entirely believable. The narrative moves back and forth between Spruce Harbor, Maine, in 2011, and the childhood of Niamh Power, an orphaned Irish immigrant who is placed on an orphan train at the age of nine.

Orphan Train has a compelling contemporary story as well: Molly Ayer, a seventeen-year-old foster child finds herself in trouble yet again. Accustomed to bouncing from one foster home to another, Molly has hardened herself against attachment. Her father, a Penobscot Indian, is dead, and Molly's mother is in jail. She knows all about being an outsider. Molly's community service project brings her into an elderly widow's elegant home; her task is to help Vivan Daly sort through an attic full of possessions. As Molly and Vivian begin to unearth Vivian's past, the reader realizes that the two women have a great deal in common.

The story of Vivian's past (her first name was changed by her adoptive family) is gripping, disturbing, sorrowful, and in the end strangely moving. Kline gets her tone just right; even Vivian's joy and happiness are muted by her enormous losses, but her character comes across as brave, engaging, and very real. The narrative of Vivian's past is told in the first person, present tense, which gives it immediacy and charges it with suspense. The contemporary narrative is told in the third-person from Molly's point of view, and while Molly is a wholly rounded character, and comes across as vulnerable and complex, we don't get to know her quite as well as we know the young Vivian (also called Niamh and Dorothy at different points in the novel). It is a fascinating study in how experience, and especially an early experience of devastating loss, can shape a life.

I think Orphan Train would be a wonderful novel for a book club. I loved it for the beautiful writing, the interesting historical background, and the characters. Judging from the response I've seen among other readers, Orphan Train hardly needs this, but I highly recommend this book for readers of literary fiction and historical fiction.

For a book trailer, interviews, and more about Orphan Train, check out the author's website at:
http://www.christinabakerkline.com




12 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I first learned of the orphan trains when I read The Chaperone. I'd love to know more about them so this sounds right up my alley.

bibliophiliac said...

@bermudaonion--oh, it is so good! I remember reading about orphan trains several years ago, and my immediate thought was: that would be a great idea for a novel! And it is.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

THis book has been seling really well in my store, so I've been curious for the last few weeks about it. Thanks for the review.

bibliophiliac said...

@As the Crowe Flies-I think word of mouth has been doing much of the selling with Orphan Train...book clubs will love this book.

Jennifer Hartling said...

I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot, which makes for a great read for me :)

Andi said...

I originally had an Orphan Train review scheduled for today, but it got bumped in favor of Neil Gaiman. lol Anywho, I loved this book, even though I was far more partial to the historical tale than the contemporary one. The contemporary was necessary to bring the book to a satisfying close, but I just wanted to stay in the past. ;)

bibliophiliac said...

@Andi-I agree, the historical narrative was what really made the book for me. I thought Kline did a really good job of weaving the historical and the contemporary stories together. I would like to read more about orphan trains, though. Maybe some non-fiction, because the topic is fascinating.

bibliophiliac said...

@Jennifer-If I can learn something about a new topic while I am enjoying a fictional narrative, that is my perfect read! This book was very satisfying on that level.

Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

I read a book about an orphan train a few years ago and was blown away that something like this is actually a part of our American history. I'm looking forward to learning more about the history of that era in this book.

Thanks for being on the tour!

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries said...

I'd never heard of OUR orphan trains until I read a different review a few days ago about this book (The things they DON'T teach you in school). That review was also glowing!

bibliophiliac said...

@Julie-the treatment of children, especially the children of the poor, was very callous in the 19th and early 20th centuries. You could argue that some of those attitudes linger. I thought Orphan Train did a wonderful job of conveying those callous attitudes without ever departing from the story....

bibliophiliac said...

@Heather-this is a book you really need to read! I'm so glad I got to participate in this blog tour!