First line: “I believe in ghosts.”
In 2013 readers first discovered Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. I was not among them. I guess you could say, I missed that train. And it’s very rare these day for me to be able to circle back on a book I missed when it came out, but this TLC Book Tour for the revised paperback edition of Orphan Train allowed me to do just that. And I’m thankful for the opportunity. What a wonderful novel.
Niamh Power is only nine years old when a fire takes her father and siblings and leaves her mother in a mental institution. It’s 1929 in New York City and the Children’s Aid Society transports orphans west–via train–to families that will take them in. Niamh, a red-haired Irish immigrant, is one of the orphans caught up in this system.
Molly Ayer is in a similar situation in Spruce Harbor Maine in 2011. While there is no longer an orphan train, Molly is stuck in the foster system. Her father died in a car accident and her mother spiraled into addiction issues leaving her unable to care for Molly. She’s close to aging out of the system, but when she tries to steal an old tattered copy of Jane Eyre from the library and is caught, she’s left in a serious predicament: serve community service hours or juvie time. Molly’s boyfriend Jack manages to arrange the community service time with his mother’s employer, an old woman named Vivian Daly who needs to clean out her attic.
As Molly helps Vivian go through her belongings in the attic, she learns the story of the red-haired Irish immigrant who traveled on the orphan train in Depression-era America, and a special bond forms.
Orphan Train is a beautiful, disturbing, haunting historical novel that spotlights humanity’s basest creatures and its most compassionate. The story illustrates the power of determination and the human ability to overcome life’s harshest storms with the support of others. Kline’s atmosphere thickly envelopes readers, laying them on an old, moldy, infested mattresses on the ground or trudging them through a snow storm.
Kline has a letter at the opening of the novel indicating that she’s added to a scene that she received many letters about. Not having read the original version, I wasn’t able to discern where this addition was made. It is seamless and causes no bumps in the plot. Those who have read the book previously may want to venture back and see how the addition affects their reading of the women’s stories.
If, like me, you missed the Orphan Train before now, I encourage you to pick it up. This is definitely a train you’ll be glad you jumped aboard.