Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review for "Orphan Train" {by Christina Baker Kline}

Title of the Book: The Orphan Train

Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: William Marrow
Number of Pages: 288
Year Published: 2014
Reading Level: YA +
Genre: Fiction

Summary: Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life - answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

Our Star Rating: 

Author: Christina Baker Kline 

Our Group Review:

Before we even got started discussing this book, moderator Carissa Rasmussen had each of us choose one picture out of many that were spread over the center table. Each picture was of a young child or teenager. We picked up whichever picture spoke to us and then settled in to discuss. 

Carissa began with a letter from Christina Baker Kline about how this book came to be:

Dear Reader,
One holiday season, about a decade ago, an unexpected blizzard changed the course of my life.  Visiting my mother-in-law in Fargo, North Dakota, for a week with my husband and three young sons, we woke up one morning in the dark, the windows blanketed with snow.  The boys shrieked, threw on ski pants, and ran outside to make snow angels and igloo tunnels, but after a few minutes they trudged back inside, icicles dripping from their noses and boots full of slush.  As the snowfall grew heavier we watched the cars in the driveway disappear, along with any dreams we might have had of going sledding or shopping.
There was no escape: we were housebound.  On the second day, after several interminable games of Sorry with my younger two boys, I escaped to find their bookish older brother, Hayden, on his stomach in the living room, leafing through a publication I’d never seen before.  Called “Century of Stories,” it was a celebration of Jamestown, ND’s centennial in 1983, filled with articles and photographs. “Hayden, there’s a story in there about my dad, your great-grandfather, that might interest you,” my mother-in-law, Carole, was saying.  I knew that Carole had grown up in Jamestown and that her father, a taciturn and somewhat aloof man, had been president of the local bank – but that was all.  So it was quite a surprise to read the article about him, “They called it ‘Orphan Train’: And it proved there was a home for many children on the prairie.”
The idea behind the Orphan Train was to give the orphans on the streets of New York City a chance at finding loving homes. The other piece of logic behind the creators of the Orphan Train was that at the same time it would get rid of some of the riff-raff causing trouble on the streets. So they loaded up the kids and headed west, stopping at cities along the way to letting the good folks of the town pick a new child to bring home. The Orphan Train Movement began in 1854-1929 and more than 120,000 children were placed. What may have started as a good idea turned into children being forced to work in factories and endure all sorts of abuse. The fallout from the Orphan Trains eventually would inspire the Foster Care system. This book is the fictional account of one girl, Vivian, who is based on snippets of truths from many children who went through the process. Christina Baker Kline tried to take out the extremes so that her book would represent the average experience (which was anything but average) of the children placed on these trains. 

(image source)

At this point Carissa told us each to look at the picture of the child we had selected. She then revealed that every picture was of a child currently awaiting adoption in Utah. Most of them were a little bit older and may have had some kind of physical, mental or behavioral issues. She then read some of the stories of the children while the person with that child's picture would hold it up for the group to see. It brought many of us to tears. If you would like to see the pictures and descriptions of the kids she shared with us, here's the link:

At this point many of us shared personal stories about adoption or foster care. It was a very touching and heart-wrenching discussion. 

Then we moved into the Top 10 Questions that Christina Baker Kline gets asked for Book Clubs. She has even made a video of her answering them! 

Something that really stood out to us was that a lot of the survivors from the Orphan Trains didn't ever speak about what they went through until some of their children began to ask questions and urge them to tell their stories. 

We really enjoyed the way Christina Baker Kline went back and forth between Vivian's perspective and Molly's. The relationship between the two of them was so fantastically layered and complex. It was like they were kindred spirits but just born in different eras. They each answered something in one another that no one else could. 

Here are a few of our favorite heart-wrenching quotes.

“I learned long ago that loss is not only probable but inevitable. I know what it means to lose everything, to let go of one life and find another. And now I feel, with a strange, deep certainty, that it must be my lot in life to be taught that lesson over and over again.” 
“So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason - to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?” 

“Do you believe in spirits? Or ghosts?...
"Yes, I do. I believe in ghosts....They're the ones who haunt us. The ones who have left us behind."
Vivian has come back to the idea that the people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our ordinary moments. They're with us in the grocery store, as we turn the corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles. The things that matter stay with you, seep into your skin.

“She knows too well what it's like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb. [...] The expression of emotion does not come naturally, so you learn to fake it. To pretend. To display an empathy you don't really feel. And so it is that you learn to pass, if you're lucky, to look like everyone else, even though you're broken inside.” 

We loved the relationship between her and Dutchy. We cheered when anyone showed even the most basic shred of decency to Vivian. We were elated when Vivian was able to connect with Molly and we got choked up over the way Molly was able to help Vivian. 

This was a tough book to discuss in some ways because it's such heavy topic matter. Several of us cried more than once in this book! But don't worry, Christina Baker Kline wraps it all up neatly at the end so you won't go into a tailspin. This book is equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming. 

Orphan Train is a great book club discussion book and we recommend it to everyone. You will become a better person for having read it. 

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