Friday, June 03, 2016

Orphan Train: a novel by Christina Baker Kline

Wanted. Homes for Orphan Children.

Typically, such a notice was posted a week or two before a train, loaded with homeless children, arrived in Midwestern towns in the U.S, circa 1854 -1929. Many were Irish immigrants, like nine year old Niamh in Christina Baker Kline’s novel, Orphan Train.
Niamh, whose Irish name is changed to Dorothy, then Vivian, struggles to keep her heritage alive. 

Kline’s book has been well researched, her interest sparked by an article in a book from the Fort Seward Historical Society about young Irish immigrants. She read hundreds of personal accounts from train riders and attended train rider reunions.

Kline uses the book’s epigraph to introduce the Native American practice of portaging, which meant traveling light—leaving  some things behind. And,Vivian has an attic full of mementos she can’t part with. A friendship between ninety-one-year-old Vivian and Molly, an orphan herself, who is in foster care, is centered on the task of cleaning out the attic. 

Superimpose seventeen-year-old Molly’s life on Vivian’s and you will find almost identical experiences. Homelessness. Hopelessness. Insecurity. Fear.  From the opening quote about portaging, “. . . Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.”

What I like most about this book is the self-discovery that takes place as the women set out on a journey through the past, forging a friendship. 

I enjoyed listening to the Orphan Train on CD and was impressed by the range of characters readers Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren portrayed. From the Irish brogue of Niamh in her youth to the elderly, reminiscent Vivian in Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011, I was fascinated with the nuances in the voices conveyed for each character.

If you are looking for a historical novel set in the 1920’s and 30’s, with contemporary elements, check out Orphan Train. The novel shifts back and forth between the time periods.

For another historical novel about two women who become friends, regardless of their ages (Hennie is eighty-six and Nit is seventeen) check out Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas. The story alternates between the late 1800’s and the 1930’s Depression era in a Colorado mining town.

Review by Sandi H.

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