Christina Baker Kline
paperback, 304 pages
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.
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