Thursday, April 30, 2015

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Trains are a little known phenomenon in U.S. history. From 1854 to 1929, approximately 200,000 children from the East Coast--orphans or children whose parents were unable to care for them--were transported by train to the Midwest, where they were taken in by families. Sadly, while some of the children found good homes, many were little more than indentured servants.

Christina Baker Kline's novel follows one of the children who traveled from New York to Minnesota--Niamh (rhymes with Eve). Niamh's first two placements were horrendous, and the descriptions of the abuse and neglect she suffered are heart-rending. In her third placement, she was more fortunate, being adopted by a kind couple; despite the good situation, Niamh never felt truly at home with the Nielsens.

Niamh's story unfolds in parallel with the contemporary story of Molly, a Native American teenager in foster care who starts helping 90-year-old Vivian (Niamh all grown up) go through the lifetime of junk she has stored in her attic. As part of a school project, Molly interviews Vivian about a "portage" experience in her life, and Vivian eventually shares her autobiography with the girl, who then helps her solve some of the mysteries that have plagued Vivian over the years.

While the story of the Orphan Train and Niamh's first years in Minnesota is interesting, the book somehow doesn't come together as a whole. The connection between Vivian and Molly seems contrived, as does the whole "portage" project.  Niamh/Vivian's story is told in present tense, although it is supposedly Vivian's recounting of the events some 80 years later (suggesting it ought to be in past tense). And everything is wrapped up so neatly at the end that it strains credulity.  The book might actually have been more effective if Kline had stuck with the children of the Orphan Train and not complicated matters with the contemporary frame.

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