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. Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.
What I Think:
FRESH DYNAMIC: That depends. Many readers say ORPHAN TRAIN reads like young adult fiction because Kline did such a superb job with Molly’s character. I think there’s more to that claim. Consider this: 1) By leafing through a wealthy old lady’s attic and 2) forming a bond with said mysterious old lady, (who is more interested in the main character’s well-being than her own mother) 3) a young girl with a difficult past grows/heals 4) and fills a maternal void. 5) Meanwhile, she contributes to the old lady’s quality of life. Old lady feels less isolated and more encouraged to embrace her future. WOW – -Discovering secrets in an attic was every girl’s dream (at least, before the digital age…) : BEHIND THE ATTIC WALL, any NANCY DREW. I could go on and on. Discovering a crone had a past life and making her happy? POLLYANNA, and several episodes of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. This may feel like YA because that was what you read when you were ten. If not, it is a fresh dynamic.
EMOTIONALLY REWARDING: Absolutely, but Kline sets up expectations well in advance. Mrs. Byrne is cold-hearted. Mr. Grote is gross. When “Dorothy” sees The Wizard of Oz, readers know her life is about to go TECHNICOLOR. Maybe these overt cues contribute to the YA idea as well.
Once Molly and Vivian share truths about tragedy in their early lives, Vivian reflects: “And so your personality is shaped. You know too much and this knowledge makes you wary…The expression of emotion does not come naturally, so you learn to fake it. To pretend. To display an empathy you don’t actually feel. And so it is that you learn how to pass, if you’re lucky, to look like everyone else, even though you’re broken inside.” p.170. These are the passages where Kline’s writing shines – making extreme circumstances emotionally transferable.
DUAL HEROINES … OR NOT?: Another reason this story could be seen as a YA read is the struggle to determine “heroineship”.
Throughout Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian’s experience she remains a good-hearted survivor who prospers, but she doesn’t do anything extraordinary. Nothing heroic or self-sacrificing. She makes her money, sits in her mansion and becomes a hoarder. She’s not particularly happy or contributor to the community. In short, not heroine material. When Molly’s school project requires an interview, Vivian doesn’t seem to fret over the decision to discuss her life after decades of silence. *SPOILER ALERT (SORT OF)* Vivian supplies answers and out of her past tumbles an out-of-character plot twist that made me groan.
This leaves Molly, the character who changes most IN REAL TIME. The novel opens with her in full goth attire, but frustrated by the effort it takes. With each visit, her social worker comments on Molly losing some of her “armor”. The way Molly succeeds as a heroine is by finding inner strength to move beyond her sarcastic shell and help others.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I liked this story a great deal. I enjoyed learning about the historical significance of the orphan trains. Kline does a fantastic job weaving the two voices in the simplest, clearest way possible. There will be plenty for book clubs to discuss.