There is a sad, shameful chapter of American history that I knew nothing about until reading Christine Baker Kline’s novel, Orphan Train. Less than 100 years ago, orphaned children were herded onto trains and taken as far west as it took to get them adopted. At each stop they were treated as commodities, and handed over to just about anyone who was willing to take them. Adoption was not necessary, just a roof, food, and schooling. Since no one was closely monitored, even these basic essentials were more theoretical than anything. Unless they were cute little babies, the children were typically chosen by their new guardians for their strength and abilities. Essentially, they were free labor and household help. It was a time of great widespread hardship in this country, so poverty was a normal state for many. Therefore, the children were often given over to despicable living conditions, with the attitude that it had to be better than living in an orphanage or on the streets.
Orphan Train chronicles two parallel stories, one of a modern day teenager in the year 2011, and another of a Depression era young girl beginning in the year 1929. One is experiencing the trials and tribulations of the foster care system, and the other is a rider of an orphan train. When 17-year old Molly meets a rich old lady, Vivian, she cannot imagine that they will have anything in common. Before long it becomes clear that they are kindred spirits and an unlikely friendship is formed.
Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, Orphan Train is the story of a lonesome way of life, not just for Molly and Vivian, but for thousands of other children who have endured (and continue to endure) similar hardships. Some children are lucky and find themselves in loving homes, treated as family. Others are not so lucky, and although they may (or may not) be safe and cared for on the surface, they may not feel loved or feel truly a part of a family. They may feel that they have been chosen for a home based on what they can bring to that home (today, payment for foster parents), and sadly, in many cases that is the ugly truth. While conditions may have improved, and safeguards are in place that were not there in the days of the orphan trains, the experiences of the children are not so different.
Alysia lives in Metro Detroit with her husband and four children. She writes about family life, parenting issues, and other things of interest to her on her blog, Michigal.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow Paperbacks. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.