Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, Orphan Train, is a powerfully moving and compelling story of seventeen-year-old Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer a trouble teen bounced from one foster home to another. Caught stealing a copy of Jane Eyre from the local library, Molly is required to do fifty hours of community service to avoid going to Juvie. Unwillingly, Molly agrees to clean out the attic for a wealthy ninety-one-year-old widow, Vivian. However, as Molly begins to sift through the boxes of memorabilia in the old woman’s attic, Molly discovers that Vivian’s story has much in common with her own.
In New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Niamh Power is left an orphan when her recently immigrated family parish in an apartment fire. After living in an overcrowded orphanage for a few months the Children’s Aid Society sends her on an “orphan train.” Chaperones take hundreds of homeless, destitute city children, mostly immigrants, into the midwest stopping at one town and the next while families come to inspected, like animals, the children. Boys, strong boys, are generally chosen first to work, like indentured servants, on farms, babies second and last chosen are the girls- not useful for farm work but often useful for childcare, household duties and other manual labor tasks. Niamh (pronounced “Neev”) is undesirable because she is a girl and she has red hair. Niamh trip wasn’t entirely unhappy as she bonds with a street urchin boy named Dutchy and a fourteen-month-old baby, Carmine. Deposited with the Byrnes, who wanted only child labor in their dressmaking business, Niamh (renamed Dorothy) stitches and sews, sleeps alone under a thin blanket on a cot in the hallway and is given food, like prison rations, by the austere Mrs. Byrnes. Then, as the Great Depression begins, Niamh (aka Dorothy) is dumped into the Grote household where she suffers severe neglect and abuse. Only after the intervention of a kind teacher does Vivian find a home with a the Neilsen’s, a decent, loving family who renames her, once again, Vivian.
The story is revealed through alternating chapters set in the present day with Molly and the opposing chapters set in the period from 1929 through World War II. Molly discovers Vivian’s history as an Irish immigrant orphan and the connection between the two deepens allowing Molly to discover her worth and it permits Vivian to face her pain and rediscover what she thought she had lost.
Kline creates emotionally rich and deeply believable characters that, as readers, we come to care for very much. It is a powerful story, steeped in history, that forces us to look at the dark sides of our society both in the past and in the present.