Book Review

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Title: Orphan TrainBook Review - Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Author: Christina Baker Kline

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks

Genre: Historical Fiction

First Publication: 2013

Language: English

Major Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly

Setting Place: Present-day Maine; 1920s Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland; 1920s New York City; 1930s-1940s Hemford Country, Minnesota

Theme: Belonging and Connection, Self and Identity, Safety and Survival, Trauma and Loss, Secrets, Reality, and Illusions, Hope and Skepticism

Narrator: Molly’s story is told in a third-person-limited perspective; Vivian’s story is told in the first person.


Book Summary: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.


Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Weaving together the stories of two abandoned children, one from the past and one from the present, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline explores the depths of emotion children experience and the devastating consequences of abandonment. No platitudes proclaiming the resilience of children; reality rips into the heart of the reader with searing honesty. There is no “story-book ending”; even Vivian’s adoption by a kind couple cannot heal the past.

“I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is- a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.”

In 1927 young Niamh Power, her Mam, Da and siblings had left County Galway in Ireland (and her beloved Gram) for the shores of America, assured of a better life for the family. The foggy arrival in New York harbour meant the Statue of Liberty was only a ghostly image in the distance, but she was sure their lives would not be as hard as they had been back home in Ireland. But within two years disaster had struck the little family, and Niamh was suddenly alone and friendless in a big city where she knew no-one…

“Time constricts and flattens, you know. It’s not evenly weighted. Certain moments linger in the mind and others disappear.”

Taken to the Children’s Aid Society Niamh found herself with other children, some younger and some older – but all were orphans just like she was. Everything was bewildering and when they were ushered onto a train some time later, she wasn’t sure what was happening, and where she and the others were going. As they travelled across the countryside, Niamh found herself in charge of a baby as well as sitting beside an angry boy not much older than herself. But slowly, quietly they talked and became friends.

At journeys end and as the time passed, Niamh was given to first one family then another – her name was changed more than once until finally she was Vivian. But the trauma of a horrific childhood, of being unloved and unwanted was heartbreaking.

“It is good to test your limits now and then, learn what the body is capable of, what you can endure.”

In 2011 in Maine, young Molly Ayer was seventeen years old – she had been in foster care for as long as she could remember, going from one place to the next, always unhappy, always rebellious. So when Molly had to do community service with an elderly widow cleaning out her attic, and that lady turned out to be Vivian, their lives became suddenly entwined. The amazing parallel of their lives surprised them both…

The tragedy of the Orphan Trains which ran between 1854 and 1929 between the East Coast and the Midwest of the United States is a well-documented fact. The plight of the abandoned children, which numbered at around 200,000 by 1929 is horrific. But Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is beautifully done, well written and certainly tugs at the heartstrings.

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