Wednesday, July 30, 2014

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

I know that most great books have a degree of sadness, but the first half of this novel was so depressing that I just wanted to get it over with.  Molly is a teenager in foster care in Maine.  When she gets caught stealing a worn-out paperback copy of Jane Eyre from the library, she cuts a deal to do her 50 hours of community service cleaning out a ninety-one-year-old woman’s attic.  (As I’m writing this, it sounds a little silly.)  The elderly woman is Vivian, who came to the Midwest as a young Irish girl on a train filled with orphan children from the East.  At first, Vivian is taken in by a family that runs a sweatshop, but when the depression sets in, women start mending their old clothes instead of buying new ones.  After that, she lands in a dirt poor family that can barely feed their own children.  When a school assignment requires that Molly interview an adult about a journey in which they had to leave some possessions behind, she asks Vivian, who shares her early tribulations with Molly, who is experiencing problems of her own at home.  Soon Molly and Vivian forge a friendship, as they find that they have parallel histories, and Molly uses her internet savvy to track down some of Vivian’s family members.  After I got past all the misery in Vivian’s childhood, I began to enjoy this novel, even with all of its coincidences and predictability.  I’m sure the author is not exaggerating the fate that many of the children from the orphan trains suffered.  They became servants and farmhands and functioned basically as white slaves.  This book reminded me of Black Beauty, which I haven’t read since I was a child, but Vivian, like Beauty, moves from one cruel situation to another.  Since she’s now in her nineties and wealthy, we know that she survives and even prospers.  Tragic beginnings can sometimes morph into happy endings, and Vivian’s journey with all of its bumps along the road is one worth following.

No comments: