Orphan Train

Christina Baker Kline

Harper Collins Publishers

“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?” Molly asks when Vivian reads some of these stories aloud.

“It certainly helps,” Vivian says.

                                from Orphan Train


Two tales on parallel tracks

According to Janet, Lori and Camille at Paperbacks Galore, I am the last remaining person in Cowlitz County to read this novel by Christina Baker Kline. They insist that they have been recommending it to me for months. Orphan Train has been very popular, they said; Orphan Train’s been selected by several local book groups, they said; I would probably enjoy reading and reviewing Orphan Train, they said they said. (I have no recollection of this, so it’s their word against mine.)

Then, a few weeks ago, I read an interview by Kline about a little known episode in our history when, between 1854 and 1929, more than two hundred thousand orphaned or abandoned children on the east coast were put on trains and sent across the country, stopping at towns along the way for people to “adopt” them. In her research, Kline interviewed a number of these children, now in their nineties, and read the personal accounts of many others. She shaped these stories into a novel.

Fascinated, I immediately rushed into Paperbacks Galore—“Hey, have you guys ever heard of a novel called Orphan Train?” (Eye rolls.)

I can see why this book that they purportedly recommended is so popular. It opens in 1928, as Niamh, a nine-year old Irish girl orphaned in New York City is sent to the Children’s Society. In time, she and a trainload of other children travel through the Midwest, where at each stop, they are looked over by prospective parents wanting (first choice) a baby, (second choice) a strong boy to work their farms as free labor, and then (three) the other children like Niamh.

Running parallel to Niamh’s story is Molly’s. It’s now 2011, and as a troubled Native American teenager who is also an orphan, she is assigned fifty community service hours for her most recent run in with the law. She works off her hours for a wealthy, ninety-one year old woman named Vivian Daly who wants to clean out her attic of boxes. It becomes clear to Molly that what Vivian really wants is to go through these boxes one last time. They hold articles from her past. And it becomes clear to the reader that Vivian was once an orphan child named Niamh.

This is not giving away any big surprises. It’s pretty clear early on. And you can also predict that Vivian and Molly are going to help each other in their personal healings. Still, reading their stories is like riding trains for many of us: the enjoyment comes in the experience itself as much as arriving at your destination.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 15, 2014-January 10, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.