Orphan Train by: Christina Baker Kline | Book Review

Orphan Train
By: Christina Baker Kline
Rating: 3 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Coming of Age, Literary Fiction
Release Date: April 2, 2013


The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

Book Review:

Told from two different perspectives between the past and the present, spanning from the early 1900s to 2011, I had certain  expectations when I started Orphan Train. However, I must admit that when I finished this book my thoughts were a mixture of empathy, scrutiny, disbelief and admiration in contrast to the two main characters Molly and Vivian.

On top of years of spotty information and details for two main characters that left me with only fragments of their personalities, I did not enjoy the pacing of the book, the self-fulfilling prophecies erected by Molly nor did I understand the reason behind her character’s heritage and it’s significance to the narrative.

Since this wasn’t a difficult or long book, I was surprised by my initial reaction to this book. While the premise of the book is great, I strongly found a disposition and lack of character motivation with Molly. Her character is snide, sarcastic, distrustful and a self-proclaimed rebel. As with most preteens and teenage characters in fiction, these traits were expected, so I just didn’t feel that the fact that she was a foster child made her behavior and attitude an adequate excuse.

Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be any character arc with Molly’s character either, as she allowed those around her to strongly influence and continue to reinforce the negative expectations of her, even after Vivian enters her life. And the portaging project for school didn’t incite any buried drive within her character to further pursue, dig or look for further information in regards to her heritage, so if the purpose behind the portaging project was to simply have Molly learn of Vivian‘s past, why didn’t Vivian just tell Molly about it while she did her community service hours?

Perhaps like most, the amount of information I am familiar with when it comes to the orphan trains is diminutive, so I looked forward to reading a book centered on the topic. And all of my empathy and admiration in this book went towards Vivian’s character, but not because she was a passenger on the Orphan Train. From beginning to end her character projects the life of forced strength, a palpable frailty, and repeatable perseverance that of a young child lost, found and lost again. In a world scarcely similar to the one she clings to in reminiscence of her grandmother and her family. Though it was odd to read the level of maturity and self-awareness 9-year-old Vivian retells her life, but it is one worth reading.

About The Author

Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. She lives out-side of New York City and on the coast of Maine. Find out more about Kline at her website, connect with her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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