Orphan Train

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, was another selection for our neighborhood book club. In addition to being a quick, easy read, it was a fascinating book. It was this book and the one I read immediately after it  that finally inspired me to get started on my own genealogical research. I continue to be amazed at what I am finding; but back to Orphan Train.

This is another of those books that will warm your heart, as well as make you sad and very angry. Orphan Train spent 90+ weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, five weeks as #1 on that list, and was on many other prominent book critic lists worldwide. It has been published in 35 countries.

All about the search for family, the plot simultaneously follows the stories of two orphaned girls:  Vivian and Molly. During the years between 1854 and 1929, trains carried orphaned and abandoned children from town to town in search of adoptive parents. The trains came to be known as “orphan trains”. I remember learning of these trains on an episode of the TV program, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Some of the children riding the trains were welcomed into loving homes. Others found themselves to be little more than slave labor for uncaring families. Vivian was one of those children.

Vivian’s horrific childhood unfolds as she shares it, with 17-year-old Molly who is doing community service in Vivian’s home. Their stories are vastly different, yet so very much alike. As Vivian shares her story, the wall Molly has constructed around herself begins to crack as she very, very gradually opens up to Vivian.

Orphan Train covers aspects of emigration: “…its humiliations and compromises… demands of self-discipline and adventurousness”. It also exposes the rigors of immigration: the prejudices experienced, as well as the hopes and fears of starting over in a new country.

What Makes This Book Reviewer Grumpy?

Lack of research on minor topics:  In speaking of Chicago, the woman from the orphanage tells the children, “The lake makes it windy, hence its appellation: the Windy City.” On the other hand, perhaps Kline was attempting to show the lack of education on the part of the character who made the statement. In reality, Chicago was stuck with that nickname when competing with New York to host the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition. Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial saying that Chicago was so full of hot-air politicians that it was a windy city, and “its people could not hold the fair [due to the “wind”] even if they won it.”

Lack of attention to details:  Vivian stated that a man’s vehicle “…is a dark-green Chrysler truck. He opens the passenger door for me, then goes around to the other side…. He backs the car out of the driveway and…” Is it a truck or is it a car? Readers do notice these things.

Incorrect verb usage — a common problem in fiction these days:  on page 18 “loaned” should have been “lent’. On page 200 “loans” should have been “lends”. On page 207 “loan” should have been “lend”.

Granted, these are small things. However, reading improper verb usage by a published author serves only to reinforce it as correct for those who never learned proper verb usage. Still it was a wonderfully informative story, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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