According to PBS’s The Orphan Trains, the Children’s Aid Society, a precursor to our modern-day foster care, arranged trips between 1854 and 1929 to relocate thousands of orphan children from the streets of New York to the Midwest. The organizers believed that farmers could use these homeless children as laborers, but hoped they would also treat them as part of their family and make sure they got an education.
Kline’s story is told through Molly and Vivian. Molly is an angry, misunderstood teen about to age out of the foster care system. She is arrested for stealing a book from the library and has to perform community service or go to jail. Her foster mother is fed up with her and doesn’t want to put any more effort into the relationship. Molly’s boyfriend helps arrange a service project for an older woman, Vivian, who employs his mother.
Vivian has Molly help her downsize her belongings. But as they open boxes in the attic, Vivian is reminded of her past and the experiences she had losing her family and being relocated by the orphan trains. As they talk, Molly and Vivian develop a strong bond from having had similar experiences trying to fit in with foster families.
I enjoyed Vivian’s saga, though my heart ached for all the ups and downs of her life. I especially liked the way Molly’s present-day life and Vivian’s past were similar. The story was an enjoyable, quick read for me. My only criticism of the book is the ending — and I love happy endings! I just felt that everything tied up too neatly.
This book seems to be a popular selection for book groups; in fact, we have the title available as a Gab Bag. If you want to use it for your own discussion, questions can be found on Christina Baker Kline’s web site. In talking with others who had read the book, we all agreed that it inspired us to look into the real-life events of the orphan trains. Tying the historical fact to the fictional story would make good talking points.
Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Train