Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is one of those books that provides the perfect balance of mixed emotions. You’ll feel thrilled and sad, interested and appalled as you journey through two worlds where two young girls are desperate to find a place to belong.
In 1930s New York a young girl called Niamh has just lost all she loves most dearly and is placed on a train which is headed for the country so she and many other orphans can find a family. The problem: she’s nearly a teenager, she’s a girl, she has red hair and freckles and most horrifyingly she’s Irish. How will Niamh find a home? All she wants is to be loved. But, a series of awful obstacles lie in her way. Will there ever be anyone that will just love her? 80 years later in Maine, history may be doomed to repeat itself as a teenage girl called Molly struggles to find acceptance and love as a part of the foster care system, the modern-day orphan train. But when a situation leads her to the house of an elderly lady, will Molly find the solace she is looking for in the history the elderly lady has to tell?
Orphan Train is a fairly recently published novel so that there is no film version of the book yet. This, I think, is a missed opportunity not only to tell a hauntingly good story but also to educate people about the truth of foster care and of the history of the orphan trains. There are some true horrors about foster care that need to be told that are shared in this book and would be most powerful in a visual representation. The history of orphan trains in America is also as Ann Packer is quoted on the front cover a “forgotten chapter of American history”. And since Orphan Train is all about a child’s struggle to succeed in the most appalling situations, it’s also a beautiful uplifting story that has all the merits of being captured on film.
In My Humble Opinion:
I loved this book in spite of the fact that it made me want to cry (something I don’t do while reading), throw the book clear across my bedroom, hurt some of the awful characters (something I often think about doing while reading) and on occasion throw up. The book also had the most marvelous characters that I longed to read succeeded in the end which kept me reading until the bitter end.
I especially loved Niahm (pronounced Neeve) and Molly. These two girls just seemed to capture my attention (and believe me, the main characters don’t always grab my attention). There was something haunting about their stories as if history truly was repeating itself over an 80 year time span. Though the girls came from different backgrounds, different situations, different generations, there was something about them that seemed the same. They had similar dreams even if they were achieving them differently. They went through similar trials and hardships. They also had another connection which remains a mystery through most of the book that keeps you enthralled as the book jumps between the early 1930s on and the year 2011.
I think I was particularly attracted to Naihm because of her purity (and perhaps because of her hair). In spite of it all Niamh remains a child at heart and all she longs for is love. I felt connected to Niamh’s personality. She seems to be a good kid but she still gets into trouble.
What got to me a little though about this story was paradoxically Niamh’s hair. I don’t quite understand why it is that so many fictional orphans are redheads. I mean think about it, Niahm, Annie (from the musical), Anne (from Anne of Green Gables) and Anastasia (from the animated film Anastasia) just to name a few are all red heads and orphans. What makes it so appealing to have a red-haired orphan? Is it because red hair is prized and that people wonder why anyone would even think about someone abandoning a redhead? Or is it more likely that a redhead will be abandoned? I guess it depends on whether you like redheads or not. (Let me know what you think of redheads in the comments – but please remember some of us are redheads so nothing rude or ugly please.)
It is clear from the book that there are those who don’t think much of redheads especially those in the earlier story. Not sure why they were so against redheads like Niamh (the story isn’t clear on that point). Perhaps it’s because of misconceptions about bad attitudes, health issue and so on. But some of the characters appear to be jealous of Niamh. And perhaps this is because of the rarity of redheads (just bragging a little). Whatever their reason, it was just awful the way they hated Niamh who was just such a nice sweet girl.
But even though I found Orphan Train a mixed bag of paradoxes, this book is a true marvel with an interesting story line, some wonderful characters, an amazing history and even a little romance (wink). It will leave you wanting to know more. Let me know what you think of the book.