Who are you? What will you bring with you when you leave?
Orphan Train is a novel by Christina Baker Kline that parallels the lives of two women born decades apart whose lives are all too similar. Both women struggle with their identity and reconcile with where they came from. The novel is based off the real life “Orphan Trains” that took orphaned children from the crowded cities of the east coast to the rural midwest to families that would adopt them to assist with farm work or household chores. Imagine being stripped away from you life and sent to a new family across the country.
Molly is a Native American teenager living in present day Maine. A foster child faced with the threat of being sent to a Juvenile Detention Center, she learns she must complete community service hours in order to stay at her current home. Molly struggles with her identity as she constantly changes her looks to put up emotional walls, as to not get too attached to her foster situations. Molly knows that in an instant life as she knows it could change drastically. With the help of her boyfriend’s mother she is given an opportunity help an old woman clean her attic.
Vivian, an elderly widow, has lived a thousand lives. Her picture perfect life in early 1900s Ireland is turned upside down when her and her family are forced to immigrate to America. Living in a crowded tenement building in the Lower East Side, a highly immigrant area, Vivian (named Nimrah at this time) looses her family to an apartment fire and is suddenly orphaned with no family and no way to find her ancestors back in Ireland. Sent on an Orphan Train westward, she travels family to family in Minnesota, newly christened as Dorothy, finding nothing but neglect and abuse. Her life and identity change with every move, struggling to remember her old life. Vivian eventually finally finds a loving family and begins a new life. Her identity as an Irish immigrant fades with time until present day when her past comes to light.
I think this book is ideal for teenagers, who know all too well of life’s crazy ups and downs and what it feels like to try to figure out who you are. The two protagonists are teenage girls, both longing for something to hold on to as their journeys twist and turn at the whim of fate. I enjoyed this book very much. I love to read about teenagers in the past. How was the life of a 18 year old immigrant in the midwest different from mine? This is why paralleling Vivian’s story with Molly was so powerful.
Molly and Vivian at first seem as different as can be, but they have more in common than they know. Without saying it, the two understand each other the way no one else can. Both girls know what it is like to leave everything behind and face an uncertain future. As Molly cleans Vivian’s attic, they take the time to reminisce on the items; each a relic of Vivian’s past life. Molly knows now the importance of learning from the past and sharing your story with others.