A friend of mine who had read Christina Baker Kline’s bestselling novel “Orphan Train” asked me, “That didn’t really happen, did it?” She was appalled to hear that, yes, a social service program that sent orphans from the streets of New York City via rail to various cities out west really did exist from the mid-1800s well into the twentieth century. From toddlers to teens, the children were lined up on a stage in the town and picked by local families to go home with them. It’s hard to imagine that now.
In Kline’s rigorously researched piece of fiction, readers hear Vivian, an elderly Maine widow, recount those years of her life. Kline’s tale, though, opens with a contemporary story. Molly, a high school senior in the town, has lived in one foster home after another. “She wears her Goth persona like armor,” Kline says, because “tough and weird is preferable to pathetic and vulnerable.” Molly is required to do 50 hours of community service work as a punishment for stealing a copy of “Jane Eyre” from the library. Her boyfriend’s mother is able to arrange a suitable project for her in which she helps the 91-year-old Vivian clean out all the trunks and boxes in her attic.
The two connect immediately—Vivian jokes about Molly’s dramatic persona, and Molly senses the kindness and vulnerability in the old woman. Over their many days together in the attic, Vivian shares stories of the life she has tried to forget as they pore over the photographs, letters and articles of clothing contained in those boxes.
Born in Ireland to a poor family who came to the United States, Vivian at age 10 was the only one of her family who survived a fire. With no relatives to take her in, she became part of the overloaded social service system. Soon, she was put on a train with about 20 other orphans, headed for Minnesota.
On the trip, two chaperones lectured the children, “You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty and vice, for the nobility of country life.” The program administrators believed that what they were doing was best for the youngsters, knowing that they were also providing the families out west with help for farm work and house chores. “With firm guidance and hard work,” the chaperones said, you will “transform into respectable citizens who can pull your weight in society.” Vivian’s experiences show the many sides of that idealized belief.
Vivian’s childhood story is so engrossing, that it sometimes feels jarring when Kline slips into the present to follow Molly. Yet in the end it is the interaction of the two women and the bond that they form because of similarities in their pasts that makes this a fascinating and heartwarming story.