Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline tells the story of Nieve/Dorothy/Vivian, an orphan train rider in 1929. After losing her father and brothers in a tenement fire, her mother to a mental institution, and her baby sister to adopted parents Nieve is on her own. After riding the "Orphan Train" from New York to Minnesota her first foster placement is with The Byrnes Family, who have no intention of having  a daughter. Instead, 7 year old Nieve, now called Dorothy, is used as an indentured servant; she sleeps on a cot in the hallway and sews in the workroom all day. The Byrnes become an unfortunate family for Dorothy, "Maybe because the alternative is so bleak, I've grown to like the sewing room" (106). But then, the stock market crashes and Dorothy is handed over to the Grotes where she is expected to perform as the mother and wife of the house, in more ways than one. She flees in the middle of the night, dead of winter, "leaving everything I possess in the world behind me- my brown suitcase, the three dresses I made at the Byrnes', the fingerless gloves and change of underwear and the navy sweater, my schoolbooks and pencil, the composition books Miss Larsen gave me to write in. The sewing packet Fanny made for me, at least, is in the inner pocket of my coat. I leave four children I could not help and did not love. I leave a place of degradation and squalor, the likes of which I will never experience again. And I leave any last shred of my childhood on the rough planks of that living room floor" (152). After the Grotes come Miss Larsen and Mrs. Murphy, theneventually the Nielson's.

Parallel to Nieve's story is that of Molly's. Herself an orphan, she has many similarities to Nieve. A 17 year old Indian and a 91 year old Irish widow; both have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers and both hold on to necklaces tying them to the remnants of a culture now far removed from them.

Author Christina Baker Kline tells that "In the process (of accepting her past) Vivian learns about the regenerative power of reclaiming - and telling- her own life story". The story is emotionally moving, and both narratives tie together seamlessly. The back of the book has a study guide, an interview with the author, and picture from the actual train riders themselves.

You can get ORPHAN TRAIN here and here. And you should.

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