Friday, July 14, 2017

Orphan Train Girl by Christina Baker Kline

This edition of the Orphan Train Girl is based on Kline's New York Times bestseller, Orphan Train and is for younger readers. Orphan Train Girl weaves together two stories, that of Irish immigrant Niamh who is orphaned in a fire in 1929 and that of Native America Molly Ayer who is living in a foster home. Both girls are connected by a common thread that includes the loss of family and identity.

Molly Ayer lives with her foster parents, Dina and Ralph  in Spruce Harbor, Maine. One day while at the Spruce Harbor Public Library Molly tried to steal a paperback copy of The Secret Garden. She was caught by the librarian, Mrs. LeBlanc and her social worker, Lori was called. Lori arranged for Molly to do twenty hours of community service and Dina and Ralph agreed she could continue to stay with them. Molly's best and only friend, Jack came up with the idea that Molly could help clean Mrs. Daly's attic. Jack's mother cleans Mrs. Daly's home and had mentioned that the elderly woman needed help with this task.

Molly meets Mrs. Daly - Vivian who is to the point but kind and who asks Molly about her life. Molly tells her that she is a Penobscot Indian and that when she was younger she lived on a reservation near Old Town. She doesn't tell Vivian that her father died in a car crash and her mother was unable to cope and eventually she was placed into care. After being shuffled around to various families she ended up with Dina and Ralph. When Vivian reveals that she too is an orphan, she tells Molly vaguely that there was a fire.

Vivian's backstory is revealed in the chapters about Niamh (pronounced Neeve) Power. Niamh arrives in America with her family, month on the Agnes Pauline when she is seven years old. Her family is from County Galway in Ireland and they arrive at Ellis Island having left their country because of the potato famine. Niamh's family thought they would find a better life in America but instead they found "the grimy streets of lower Manhattan, a dishwashing job for Da at a pub, and a small apartment on Elizabeth Street for ten dollars a month."

Nine-year-old Niamh's life is changed forever when a fire sweeps through their apartment. Mam wakes Niamh and takes eighteen-month-old Maisie, while Da tries to waken the twins, James and Dominick. But Niamh finds herself alone on the sidewalk. The doctor tells Niamh that her mother has died and that there is no hope for Maisie. With no family to take her in, Niamh is taken to the Children's Aid Society by her neighbor Mr. Schatzman. Weeks later Niamh finds herself boarding a train along with twenty other orphans, chaperoned by Mrs. Scatcherd and Mr. Curran. Niamh is given charge of a little boy named Carmine. Mrs. Scatcherd tells the children that they are on an orphan train which will take them (hopefully) to new homes in the countryside. One of the older boys, Dutchy doesn't want to be on the train as he'd rather be out on the street working shining shoes.  After a transfer in Chicago's Union Station that did not go well, Niamh finds herself and the rest of the orphans in Minneapolis at the Milwaukee Road Depot. Here people will come with the intention of choosing a child to take home with them. Both Carmine and Dutchy are chosen although Dutchy is not happy. He gives Niamh his lucky penny. Niamh then travels to Alban where she is picked by Mrs. Byrne who renames her Dorothy and sets her to work making clothing. It is the first of several terrible homes Niamh will be sent to before things get better.

As Vivian reveals her story it becomes apparent that she and Molly have much in common and what starts out as a boring attempt to help an elderly woman might actually come to mean much more to both of them.


Orphan Train Girl juxtaposes two narratives, one in the present and one set in 1929-1930. The stories appear to be very separate- in the present day, Molly who has been caught stealing is sent to help the elderly Vivian clean out her attic while the story set in 1929 is about a poor Irish immigrant girl who is sent on an orphan train to find a new family.
However it soon becomes apparent that Niamh's story is really about Vivian when she was young.

Although Vivian and Molly seem very different, their lives are very similar. Vivian loses her family and thus loses connection with her Irish heritage while Molly who is half Penobscot, also doesn't have a family to care for her. Both Vivian and Molly experienced being sent to several homes where they were not treated well. Like Vivian, who ended up with the caring Nielsens, Molly too comes to find that Dina and Ralph also care for her and despite several misunderstandings, they affirm that they want her to stay with them.

Both Molly and Vivian are able to help each other because of their similar life experiences. Vivian, now elderly has come to terms with her experiences as an orphan and is able to help Molly. Likewise, Molly is the first person Vivian has ever told her story to. '"I've never told anyone else about my early life," Vivian continues.'I didn't even tell the Nielsens. We didn't discuss things much in those days. Nowadays people talk about everything.'"

Of the two narratives, Vivian's story about her experiences as an orphan train child was the more interesting one. Little has been written about the orphan trains and the ordeals orphan children experienced. Kline's novel certainly highlights how poorly these children were treated both by the social system in place at the time and by their "adoptive" families. Little regard was given to the health and education of these children, many of whom suffered traumatic loss and who were dearly in need of some love and care. Instead they were paraded in front of complete strangers who then chose them (if they were lucky). Most ended up on farms doing labor, others were sent into homes But Kline also shows that orphans today also face many of the same challenges. Molly struggles to fit in at school. However once her home situation improves, like Vivian she begins to reach out more and to make friends. Vivian shows Molly that there is hope for her life to get better.

Orphan Train Girl is an interesting read about the little known practice of the orphan trains in the United States. It should appeal to a limited younger audience interested in historical fiction.

Book Details:

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
HarperCollins Children's Books      2017
228 pp.

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