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16 February 2014

Christina Baker Kline: The Orphan Train

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Orphans in Two Different Worlds
We all need to read a "feel good" story from time to time. This is one of the most memorable ones I have read for some time - a coming of age story about two young girls faced with similar situations, albeit about 80 years apart.

The background to the story is the so-called "Orphan Trains" that carried thousands of abandoned children from the US East Coast to the Midwest from mid 1800's to 1929. The children faced the possibility of being adopted by a kind and loving family, or facing a childhood of hard labor and uncaring servitude. Many even get their names changed by the family that selects them.

The story doesn't start well for Niamh (pronounced Neeve) Power when her family is forced to leave Ireland and move to New York. Living in a tenement in 1929 with her parents, two brothers and a younger sister is hard for a nine year old girl but things get far worse when most of her family are killed in a fire and her mother is sent to a mental asylum. All that is left for her is to take her chances on the "Orphan Train".

The story also doesn't start well for Molly Ayer, of proud part Penobscot Indian heritage, who in 2011 at age seventeen has been bounced from foster home to foster home for years after the death of her parents. Things are not comfortable in her current foster home, especially in her teenage rebellion years where she dresses Goth, and has multicoloured hair and nose rings. Molly loves reading and is caught stealing a tattered copy of "Jane Eyre" from her local library. This petty theft requires some community service, and a friend's mother arranges for her to help wealthy 91 year old Vivian Daly (formally Niamh Power) to sort out a huge store of memorabilia stored in her attic.

This starts an unusual relationship between two persons from different generations, an old woman with no immediate family and a rebellious but very smart teenager. What brings them together is that they both have both endured emotional and physical hardships in multiple foster homes. The story tells their experiences in alternating perspectives about 80 years apart and focusses on their similarities and their ability to help one another to change as the relationship becomes closer.

Vivian's journey to Minnesota takes her from family to family without any real feeling of home. She is mostly treated as an unpaid helper living and working in appalling conditions and she is subject to mental and possible physical abuse. Eventually Vivian successfully finds her way in the world but events prevent her having a real sense of family. Molly is still finding her way in the world and as she helps Vivian to recall her history through the boxes in the attic, they share stories and begin to realise how close their different worlds are and, importantly, how they can help one another.

The characters are beautifully drawn and you can feel the emotion in everything they did in their childhoods and as they are slowly drawn together towards a surprising and unforgettable ending. While you are an outsider you feel that you belong in their lives which show that amid turbulence, pain, and loss, in your life sometimes things may work out all right in the end.

The background to the book is authentic as Christina Baker Kline deeply researched the background to this book including interviewing a handful of survivors of the Orphan Train, now all over 90 years old. This book is highly recommended and already in my list of memorable books for 2014.

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