October 2015 – Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
blog by Cindy Bushey
With headlines and pictures in assorted media putting the plight of refugees streaming from war-torn areas of the earth directly into the cross-hairs of our national conscience, it came as a surprise to Zion’s readers that we were totally unaware of an earlier migration in our own history. Beginning in 1853 and continuing until the early 1900’s, the Children’s Aid Society of New York City instituted a well-meaning program to address the problem of homeless children. With large influxes of immigrants, crowded tenement living conditions, and the lack of health and medical practices and drugs now considered commonplace, many children lost parents and siblings at an early age and ended up on the streets. An estimated 30,000 homeless children roamed New York City streets in the 1850’s, and Mr. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, proposed to send them to the west to live and work on farms. Ideally, children would be adopted and find new families; at worst they would have a place to live, help with chores, and receive an education. Orphan Trains, as they were known, traveled around the country, stopping in 45 states, Canada, and Mexico. Other agencies joined in the endeavor and helped establish the roots of child labor laws, foster care services, and public education. As with any human social experiment, results were mixed. Some children struggled, some prospered, some flourished. Survivors and their families hold reunions and have strengthened connections thanks to the internet and social media.
In the novel Orphan Train, Zion’s readers met one of the orphans much later in life as she shared her experiences with a young teenager making her way through the foster care system. Author Christina Kline used flashbacks and alternating chapters to compare and contrast the lives of Vivian, a 91-year old train survivor, and Molly, an 11th grader navigating foster homes and high school in 2011. Our readers felt the book was well written, and the author had highly developed main characters who carried the story. It was interesting to watch the relationship grow between Vivian and Molly as the teenager did community service hours for the old lady. As they catalogued and re-packed items in Vivian’s attic that reignited memories of earlier times, they moved from almost employer and employee to women whose experiences bridged their age difference to friends.
Some of our readers had difficulty with the abandonment of children and how young children had responsibilities that we would feel adults should shoulder. We experienced dread as the narrative led us through dark chapters in Vivian’s life and thankfulness at the appearance of guardian angels at some points. Although we rejoiced when Vivian was reunited with a young man from the train, it seemed a contrived meeting that the author engineered to move the story down the plot path. We were unsure of some of the minor characters’ motivations, and wondered at the lack of explanation of some of Vivian’s life-changing decisions. Her immediate grasp of the computer and the internet at the age of 91 certainly did not seem realistic but again was a plot necessity. We noticed a stereotyping of Irish men as drunkards and wished we could question the author about it. Our readers appreciated the author’s vivid descriptions which made the sights and smells of tenement living and rural shanties come alive for us.
As our readers considered the enormity of surviving with no parents, we discussed the refugees flooding Europe as they have not since the end of World War II as well as the influx of children from Central America along the southern border of the United States in the last few years. What can be done – what SHOULD be done – as a nation and as individuals? We reached no conclusions about these questions, which demonstrated on a small scale the difficulty of the discussion for the nations of the world. We did, however, conclude that we were glad to have read this gripping book and learned, even at this late date, of this human migration in our own country. One reader was neutral about the novel, eight readers gave it one thumb up, and one reader gave it two thumbs up.