Orphan Train – A Novel (William Morrow, 2013) by Christina Baker Kline was this month’s (January 2015) selection for the Alhambra Page Turners adult book club. Two stories are told in parallel as an orphan of today (2011) bonds with an orphan of the past (1930s). Parted from her mother and forced to live with unaccommodating foster parents, 17-year-old Molly Ayer finds herself needing to work off some community service time for a petty crime. Cleaning out the attic of 90-something-year-old widow Vivian Daly, she uncovers the story of another orphan, Niamh Power (“Dorothy”), who is put on one of the Children’s Aid Society’s “orphan trains” in 1929 and sent out to the Midwest. Niamh is just a little girl longing for a new family to love her. Instead she faces prejudice against her Irish Catholic heritage, physical hardship, and neglect, as well sexual abuse. It is through Molly, decades later, that she finally comes into her own.
While the premise of Orphan Train was touching, a number of issues left me dissatisfied overall. Many plot elements were just too predictable, making it difficult to really get into the book. Character types and inter-relationships were repeated, both across Niamh’s and Molly’s stories and within Niamh’s story itself. Now, you can argue that that’s the point of the parallel, but there’s still a line drawn between similar and the same. In addition, as Niamh’s childhood and young adult stories are told through her reflective aging eyes, there’s not a lot of emotional baggage that need unpacking, even though some painful experiences are mention. The result is a conflicting sense that she’s gotten over her past while it’s still haunting her. Rather unconvincing, in my opinion.
When it comes to the historical part, I liked how the Baker Kline took the Orphan Train Movement and made it Niamh’s personal story by focusing on the elements that were directly related to the character’s life experiences. However, this fell apart when the author’s preliminary research becomes Molly’s, and a unique experience gives way to regular history with generalizable facts. The result is the yawn-inducing history lesson that doesn’t motivate the reader to go explore himself. This also is indicative of how the author narrates in general. Readers are constantly being told things rather than being shown them through the action and dialogue. The result is a rather sterile read.
I also was disappointed that the author didn’t attempt to personalize World War II in the same way as the orphan train period. Instead, she follows the “grand narrative” of how an American citizen viewed the war, missing an opportunity to develop Niamh’s unique perspective. Irish immigrants weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea early on of fighting a war for Great Britain, but neither heroine touches upon that point when the issue of Irish oppression is raised.
Flaws aside, Orphan Train makes for an interesting read because its setting offers something different from much of the mainstream historical fiction. And if it helps preserve a little slice of American history that most of us know nothing about, that we can certainly benefit from reading it.