We know there are families that treat their children horridly. Take Molly, the first of two main characters we’re introduced to in “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline: “Father dead. Mother off the deep end. Shuttled around and rejected time and time again.”
But 17-year-old Molly’s story isn’t new or even rare. Her circumstances render her a ward of the state at the age of 8, and she lives a life not unlike Vivian’s, the other main character, who comes to be her improbable friend.
Vivian is 91 years old. When she was 9 years old, she’d been left in the hands of the Children’s Aid Society after her family died in a fire in a New York City tenement building. The plight of abandoned orphans at the turn of the 20th century comes into focus through Vivian who rode an orphan train. According to the book cover, between 1854 and 1929, thousands of children “whose fates would be determined by pure luck” were relocated from eastern cities to the Midwest. As Vivian’s story describes, chaperones boarded the homeless children on trains and traveled with them to the Midwest where communities posted signs to alert citizens of the train’s arrival. One by one in city after city, the children were passed off. Older ones like Vivian typically faced lives of servitude — they were attractive acquisitions as workers, not as family members.
“No one feels sorry for me because I’ve lost my family … The Children’s Aid Society treats us as if we were born the moment we were brought in,” Vivian recalls. Such treatment aptly explains why the Midwestern couple that takes her in to work as a seamstress presumes to change her name to Dorothy because her given name, Niamh, pronounced Neev, doesn’t suit. Vivian quickly realizes she is “a burden to society, and nobody’s responsibility.”
The website www.orphantraindepot.org says the orphan trains are widely recognized as the beginning of documented foster care in America. We see how that foster care system affects Molly whose story takes place in the present day. At 8 years old, Molly’s father dies in a car accident and her mother has a breakdown. In her current home in the fictional town of Spruce Harbor, Maine, Molly’s foster mother is mean and the father is weak, but despite the lack of love and affection, Molly perseveres. She finds it remarkable that “still she breathes and sleeps and grows taller, (that she) wakes up every morning and puts on clothes.”
The story begins when Molly is required to perform community service to avoid juvenile detention. Her boyfriend’s mother Terry works at Vivian’s house. Terry arranges for Molly to clean out Vivian’s attic to work off her service hours.
“It becomes clear to Molly that ‘cleaning the attic’ means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack.” The problem is that each box brings a memory. Author Kline cleverly connects two tales separated by more than 70 years by bringing pieces of the past, found in the boxes, into the present as Vivian tells her story. The first box they open contains a mustard colored coat that Vivian says she always hated, but when it comes time to give the order to dispose of it, Vivian cannot. We learn soon enough she wore the coat after being sexually assaulted and then kicked out of the house in the middle of a snowy, frigid night; it kept her warm as she walked four miles to the one place she felt safe – school.
Kline unveils Vivian’s and Molly’s lives in a side-by-side fashion until the tales merge later in the book. Kline weaves Vivian’s childhood tales of poverty and hardship with those of Molly’s own life, which isn’t much better.
Molly’s and Vivian’s childhoods shape them as adults. Vivian’s past affects the decisions she makes for the rest of her life, especially one major event that changes her future. Vivian’s story is sad. One after the other, the people she loves are lost to her so that eventually she also loses the capacity to love. When she tells Molly about her major life-changing event, one she’s kept hidden for decades, the two of them work together to bring closure to it. At about the same time, the attic is finally put to order, and the story moves forward without the recounting of tales.
And that’s Vivian’s gift to Molly – showing her, through the telling of her tales, the monumental cost of losing the capacity to love. Hopefully Molly, at 17, will face her future open to possibility of love and all that comes with it.