I spent a fair share of grade school years intrigued/fascinated by the idea of orphan trains. It probably all started when my school librarian gave me a copy of A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon, a series I loved and read over and over again. So, when I saw Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, my curiosity was naturally piqued.
The format of Orphan Train is a commonly used one in the world of historical fiction; chapters alternate between present day and some long ago time. As far as originality and believability of plot line, Orphan Train is pretty average. I enjoyed it – flew through it – finished it in a night, but nothing about it was tremendous. Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer is about to age out of the foster care system. She has survived her many homes and difficult situations by taking on an exterior that naturally keeps people at bay – her hair is striped with bleach, ears studded with piercings, face made pale with too-light shades of make-up. When she gets caught trying to steal a tattered copy of Jane Eyre from the library, she is faced with a decision: fifty hours of community service or time in juvenile detention. With the help of her charming and sensitive boyfriend, Molly ends up spending her fifty hours with an old woman named Vivian, cleaning out an attic packed full of memories. Alternating chapters reveal Vivian’s backstory – a young girl orphaned by a fire and sent off on a train to a fate unknown.
The best parts of the story were Vivian’s – her experience, and the experiences of others on the train with her, are so tragic and such a forgotten piece of history. The ending was lackluster, but mostly because I wanted a little bit more! I felt like it ended right in the middle of the climactic scene, with little to no resolution. If you like this format of novel, the best ones I’ve read in the past year are The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy (modern-day border patrol guard’s girlfriend befriends woman with a mysterious upbringing in Hitler’s Germany) and The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner (young girl takes a job transcribing the never-before-seen diary of a young girl accused of witchcraft in Salem, MA). Both were really enjoyable!