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“Orphan Train” by Christine Baker Kline is a novel that deals with cultural identity and family history. The story is about two women who lived through extreme hardships, yet found the resilience to go on, forgive and be happy.
Vivian Daly was 9 in 1929, when her Irish immigrant parents from County Galway died in a tenement fire on the Lower East Side in New York City. With no one to care for her she was taken in by the Children’s Aid Society. According to the historical archives of The Children’s Aid Society, the Orphan Train Movement transported children from overcrowded cities in the U.S. to foster homes across the country. The Orphan Trains ran between 1853 and 1929. Estimates range from 120,000 to more than 200,000 abandoned, orphaned or homeless children relocated during those years.
New York was teeming with abandoned children and orphans. Orphanages were overwhelmed. Orphan Trains were a way to get the orphans out of New York and into homes of families in the west and midwest who could use a child or two to provide free labor as much as to complete a family.
Vivian (Niamh/Dorothy) was only one of an estimated thousands put on trains and transported west between 1854 and 1929.
The novel begins with Vivian, a wealthy 91-year-old, living on her own in a mansion in Spruce Harbor, Maine. Although she has no living relatives, they remain active in her memory. One day her housekeeper urges Vivian to let Molly Ayer, a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian foster child, help sort through the many trunks in the attic, with hidden memories of Vivian’s past.
Molly, having bounced from family to family, feels she does not fit in and never will. As part of her armor against all the emotional hurt, she streaks her hair purple and sports many piercings. But when she hears Vivian’s story, Molly realizes that their stories are similar and she begins to soften.
Molly is a reader and good student. A teacher gives her an assignment to write about Portage: “What do you choose to take with you to the next place?” The story moves between contemporary Maine, the Lower East Side of 1929 and rural Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s.
In an interview with writer Roxana Robinson, Christina Baker Kline said she had read hundreds of first-person testimonials from train riders, historical archives and orphan-train reunion groups, the New York Times and other newspapers online. Her research took her to the New York Tenement Museum and Ellis Island as well as to Galway County in Ireland to research her character’s Irish background.
“Orphan Train” offer its readers a fascinating journey through a piece of U.S. history.