Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

orphan train coverSynopsis: Going back and forth between two stories, Orphan Train switches from 1929 New York City and Minnesota, and then 2011 Spruce Harbor, Maine. In 1929, Niamh is a young girl who loses her family in a fire, and then she rides the orphan train to a new family in Minnesota. In 2011, Molly has been living in foster care for a while, and ends up doing community service for an elderly woman named Vivian, helping to clean out her attic.

Review: I had heard many good things about Orphan Train. Friends have recommended it to me, I’ve heard it makes a good book club book, and so I was really looking forward to this read. But the book fell flat for me. The actions and behaviors of the characters made zero sense to me, and even though I liked many of the characters, I finished this book and didn’t get it.

Switching back and forth between 1929-1943 New York City and Minnesota, and also 2011 Maine, the two stories parallel each other somewhat and are nicely tied together. The story of Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian is interesting – she’s an Irish immigrant and at age 9 she loses her family in New York City and is then sent by the Children’s Aid Society on a train out west for a new family. The back of my book had “A Short History of the Real Orphan Trains”, and that was informative to read and see photographs. I had heard of the orphan trains before, pretty much just because I’ve already read The Chaperone which also talks a little bit about the trains, but hadn’t ever read anything in this much detail about them. This book is a must read in that it addresses a little known part of American history that should be talked about more, and the sections on the train were the most interesting and had the most heart.

In 2011 Maine, we jump to Molly, age 17, who is in the foster system and is living with a couple, and then steals a book from the library and must do community service or go to juvenile hall. Do they really put you in juvenile hall for trying to steal a library book? That seemed a bit extreme to me, but perhaps that was the last straw and she had already stolen before, although those details were never addressed that I remember. Molly ends up doing community service for Vivian, now age 91, helping clean and organize her attic. This of course leads to discussions about everything in the attic and Vivian’s story comes out. Molly was alright as a character, I didn’t really connect with her, but Vivian is truly where the story lies, so I felt Molly just existed to help Vivian tell her story and for a modern day parallel.

Then we come to the end of the book and the “big reveal”, and I just did not get it. I did not understand the choices that were made, and I think it may because Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian never truly opens up to the reader. I felt there was an invisible wall between us, and that even though I was reading her story, there was stuff that was hidden and/or not dealt with. Things that happen to her are glossed over, and never addressed again. I wanted a bit more of her reflecting on everything that had happened to her.  That’s all I’ll say about that, but I was left with a “huh??” feeling at the end. So I do think this would make an interesting book club choice because there would be a lot of things to talk about.

Bottom Line: A perplexing read. Events in the book felt like check boxes and I was left questioning characters behaviors instead of understanding and identifying with them.

If Orphan Train sounds interesting, you might also like to read:

  • The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty: This is a story about the woman who chaperoned Louise Brooks on a trip to New York City. It deals with the orphan trains, New York City, and is an interesting read filled with history.
  • Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano: This one is about the Italian immigrants experience living in New York City. I learned a lot in this book.
  • The Molly Murphy Mysteries by Rhys Bowen: These fun mysteries are set in early 20th century New York City, and involve Irish immigrant Molly Murphy and her desire to be a private investigator.
  • The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh: This book deals with the modern day foster care system, and tells the story of one girl who has aged out of the system.

And added to my To Be Read stack:

  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: This book/series was already going to be something that I wanted to tackle in 2016, and it is mentioned a lot in this book, so that’s just further validation that I should read it!
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I’ve never read it!

So have you read Orphan Train? Did you like the ending?


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

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