Published by William Morrow on 4/02/13
Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.
Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life - answers that will ultimately free them both.
I probably wouldn’t have read Orphan Train if not been for book club, and that would have been my loss, because I would never have discovered what a wonderful novel it is. Sad, painful, and heartwarming by turns, this book celebrates survival in adversity, the resilience of the human spirit, and the connections we make with one another.
The structure of the book is interesting, moving between the first-person memories of Niamh (later Vivian), who traveled on the orphan train, and the third-person present-day experiences of Molly, a teenager in the foster system. As the dual storylines progress, you realize that Vivian is telling her story to Molly – secrets and experiences she has kept hidden inside for most of her life. Vivian is closed in, withdrawn into herself; Molly is hard and prickly. As their lives and stories converge, they begin to heal each other without realizing it: Vivian opens up and engages with the world, while Molly softens and begins to trust again.
I really loved both characters, and Kline does an excellent job of conveying both their outer and inner lives. It was painful and at times enraging to see how both women’s foster families treated them, and yet I’m aware that now, as in the 1920s and 30s, many orphaned or abandoned children are treated abominably. It horrifies me, and I’m amazed that some of them – like Vivian and Molly – are able not only to survive but in the end, to make new and better lives for themselves.
Molly is very much a child of her age; she’s internet-savvy, dresses goth. She’s prickly and always expects to be kicked out by her foster families, but she has learned to keep a lot of her anger and sarcasm inside. Molly has been sentenced to community service for attempted theft – of a beat-up copy of Jane Eyre from the public library. I think that tells you everything you need to know about who she is at heart. She didn’t even steal money to buy it – just took the worst copy of her favorite book, the one she though no one would miss.
Niamh (as we first know Vivian) is a grieving child, at the mercy of the adults who decide, willy-nilly, what is to become of her (and not infrequently treat her badly.) But she has an inner strength not unlike Molly’s, though she is much younger when we first meet her. We actually learn much more about Vivian’s childhood and young adulthood than Molly’s; the book is probably two-thirds Vivian and one-third Molly. But what they both go through is painful, even harrowing in Vivian’s case. At times I wanted to wrap my arms around them, adopt them both and give them the safe and loving home they deserved.
One of the themes running through the book is what we carry with us from the past, and what we let go of – both physically and emotionally. That really resonates with me; it’s something I’ve begun thinking more about as I’m in my middle years. I also love the symbolism that Kline uses: the two women’s charms, given by family members who loved them; Vivian’s attic full of stuff from her past and Molly’s mislabeled duffel bags; the concept of “portage.” The two novels mentioned in the book are important, too – Jane Eyre and Anne of Green Gables, both stories about orphans who survived and eventually found love or family, though their early life wasn’t easy. The symbolism, like the parallels between Vivian and Molly, are never forced, but serve to echo and reinforce both the themes of the novel and the experiences of the characters themselves.
If you’re looking for a well-written, character-driven novel, something with depth and authentic feeling as well as impeccably-researched history, Orphan Train is well worth reading.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- 2015 TBR Pile Reading Challenge