Orphan Train

Written by Christina Baker Kline
Review by Kristen Hannum

Irish-American Niamh is left an orphan in the 1920s when her family dies in a tenement fire. The self-satisfied and pious leaders of the Christian Aid Society send her to the Midwest aboard an orphan train, which distributed children to families who needed cheap labor or, for the lucky ones, a child to love. Niamh (pronounced Neeve) is renamed Dorothy and then Vivian by a succession of families who take her in.

In 2011, Molly might as well be an orphan: her mother has given her up. A good kid with tattoos, nose studs, and hair dyed black with two white stripes, she also goes from one foster family to another, the adults unable to give her the emotional support she needs. After she’s caught trying to steal Jane Eyre from the library, she comes to work for the now elderly Vivian through a community service commitment. The two connect.

Kline jumps back and forth from the 1920s to 2011 easily and convincingly. I marveled at how minimal the protections for children were in the 1920s and 1930s; Vivian survives despite the odds in a Dickensian America. My favorite parts of Molly’s story were her memories of how her father, a Penobscot Native American, gave her charms to keep her safe. I also enjoyed Molly’s transformation from sullen Goth to Vivian’s friend, helping the old lady find what might be left of her family. I chose to ignore my doubts about how easily the nonagenarian Vivian picked up computing skills in favor of suspending disbelief. This is primarily a young adult novel, although it’s not listed as such.