Orphans portrayed as heroic figures are not new to literature. We have sympathized with many through the years.
In “Orphan Train,” by Christina Baker Kline we meet yet another. Niamh (pronounced Neeve) Power, is a young Irish girl whose immigrant family settles in New York City in the 1920s. She is orphaned at age 9 when a fire tears through the family’s tenement housing, and consequently she is put on the “Orphan Train” heading to the Midwest.
The story is fiction but based on the actual Orphan Train Movement founded by The Children’s Aid Society and later the Catholic Foundling Hospital who in the 1850s, in New York City alone, placed more than 30,000 children in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains which were labeled “orphan” or “baby” trains. This period of mass relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.
The trains would arrive in a Midwest town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The children would be put on a stage-like podium for viewing and inspection where they would often dance or sing to attract attention. The town’s people would examine the children, perhaps feeling muscles and checking teeth and after a brief interview take the chosen one home. Sadly, many siblings were separated during the process because some people only wanted one child. Historians report that adolescent girls were the last chosen as they often seemed a threat to the women of the household. Boys could live in the barn or shed and provide the needed labor on the farms. Interestingly enough, redheads were rarely wanted.
In this story Niamh (in spite of her red hair) is taken in by the Minnesota Nielson family to work as a seamstress, but not allowed to attend school. When the depression hits in 1929 she is let go (another mouth to feed) and placed with the Brynes who name her Dorothy and take her in as a “mother’s helper” for a family of five children. Although she is allowed to attend school, the home conditions are deplorable, resulting in an incident that once again leaves her homeless. She walks miles to the schoolhouse in the middle of the night through blizzard conditions where a compassionate teacher takes her in until a new foster family can be found. With the Daly’s, who name her Vivian, she finally finds a stable home environment. She remains with them until she is an adult. Her life story is told in flashback as the novel opens with the 91-year-old Vivian, revealing her story in bits and pieces as she and a teenager named Molly go through the possessions in her attic.
Molly is also a foster child, a Penobscot Indian, who has had a troubled adolescence. Now 17 years old in 2011, she is assigned a project by her caseworker to complete 50 hours of service to avoid “juvie” and remain in school. Her “project” is to help Vivian clear her attic. What starts off as a strange partnership and penance gradually turns into a friendship between the 17-year-old and the 91-year-old. As they work together and Vivian’s story unfolds, Molly discovers that she and Vivian are not so different after all.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, “Orphan Train” is a novel of upheaval and resilience and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are. In an interview with the author, Kline says “Orphan Train” wrestles with questions of cultural identify and family history. There is also the interesting concept of “portaging.” What possessions does one choose to take and which are left behind. These issues make this an excellent book discussion.
In her research Kline interviewed hundreds of orphan train children (survivors are now all over 90 years old) and read hundreds of first person testimonials. She also traveled to Galway County in Ireland to research the main character’s Irish background. She attended train riders’ reunions in New York and Minnesota and interviewed the orphans and their descendents. They were eager to tell their stories and tended not to dwell on the considerable hardships they’d faced, but focused on gratitude for their children and grandchildren — lives that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t been on those trains. The most surprising thing that came out of her research was that many train riders believed their train was the only one. They didn’t know they were part of a massive 75-year experiment until their own children and grandchildren got involved in research. According to some estimates, there are more than two million descendents.
The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kan., maintains an archive of riders’ stories and also houses a research facility. Between 1853 and 1929, more than 250,000 children rode the Orphan Train to new lives.
Kline brings this time in history alive. Previous novels by Kline are “Bird in Hand” and “The Way Life Should Be.”
In the culmination of this story of friendship and second chances for Vivian and Molly, you may want to have a box of tissues handy.
• Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at email@example.com.