Thu, 10 May 2018
The orphan trains are a little known part of US history when, over a period of time, some 200,000 immigrant children were packed on to trains in New York and sent across the US, hoping to be picked up by friendly, or not so friendly, families along the way.
The trains were organised by a church group, under the guise of charity, but it seems that many of the children ended up nothing better than slaves, with no identity and no place to turn.
Of course there were the lucky few who landed into a loving and caring home and became part of a new family, but nonetheless the experience must have been a scary one for the weary train travellers not knowing where they would end up.
This book tells the story of Vivian, born Niamh, who after her Irish immigrant family perish in a fire, is herded on to one such train.
As Vivian embarks on her journey, she takes charge of a baby, Carmine, and befriends Dutchy, a ‘troublemaker’ who is one of the unfortunates that ends up as a dogsbody on a farm.
He also forms a bond with Vivian and vows to meet up with her again. After two unsuccessful placements, Vivian finally ends up in a loving household and has a happy upbringing.
Vivian’s story is intertwined with her encounter, as an elderly lady, with teen rebel Molly Ayer, who has been sent to help the old lady clear out her attic as a form of community service to punish her for stealing a library book – rather aptly Jane Eyre.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Vivian’s favourite book is Anne of Green Gables. As the pair sift through boxes of Vivian’s possessions, memories are stirred up and her past life gradually unfolds to Molly, who comes to admire the old lady and who ultimately offers Vivian some kind of peace after her tumultuous upbringing.
The orphan train is an interesting book with a story to tell, born out of the history of what happened to these ‘orphans’, which gives it an extra poignancy.
It is a little frustrating, if anything, that we don’t see more of the life of these children.
For me, Vivian’s story is the stronger of the two. Molly is a plot device and a couple of times I found myself wishing the author, Baker Kline, had told a chronological tale of Vivan’s life. But, there is a bit more to it than that and I was taken by surprise by the outcome of the unlikely pair’s friendship.
The orphan train is a gentle book and ultimately an uplifting tale, albeit tinged with sadness, of a life shaped by circumstances. It doesn’t tax the reader too much and if you want to find out more about the orphan trains of the title, you might find it wanting.
I would recommend The orphan train as a holiday read, or a quiet-bit-of-down-time read. It does not demand too much of its reader, but there is an emotional pull you might find hard to resist.