Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2-1/2 Stars)

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There are two narrators to this book of historical fiction. The first is Vivian, a 91-year-old woman who had been an adolescent child on the orphan train. The second is Molly, a troubled 17-year-old young woman who is in foster care. In order to satisfy some community service hours, Molly is assigned the task of cleaning Vivian’s attic and they become friends along the way. Vivian’s narration begins with her childhood, the late 1920’s to early 1930’s, combined with Molly’s narration in present day. This book is breezy to read. It just flows from one page to the next, one chapter to the next, one narrator to the next. But this book has some serious issues.

First, it is based on stereotypes at every turn. Molly is the Goth girl in school and a Penobscot Indian. There is a discussion of inequality in her classroom with a bigoted fellow student, but it’s brief and the subject matter is glossed over. The caseworkers, past and present, are portrayed as uncaring and just eager to make their lives easy by passing along their problems. Molly’s foster parents are Christians who really don’t exemplify their faith, and are portrayed as being just in it for the money. And so on.

Second, I really had hoped for more of the historical facts of the orphan train. The subject matter is ripe for discussion of how 250,000 children were just placed on a train with the hopes that someone would give them a loving and caring home. Yet, the caseworkers knew that wouldn’t happen for most of the older children, and cautioned them that they were probably going to be placed in a home looking for cheap labor. I find it so hard to wrap my head around the fact that children were just handed over to anyone who said, “yeah, I’ll take that one.” That’s not to say that all stories ended sadly. From the Children’s Aid Society website:

Some of the children struggled in their newfound surroundings, while many others went on to lead simple, very normal lives, raising their families and working towards the American dream. Although records weren’t always well kept, some of the children placed in the West went on to great successes. There were two governors, one congressman, one sheriff, two district attorneys, three county commissioners as well as numerous bankers, lawyers, physicians, journalists, ministers, teachers and businessmen.

Third, the ending was so abrupt,I actually looked to see if I somehow skipped something.

My takeaway from the book is that we shape our own destiny. Today is New Year’s Eve, a time when we typically make resolutions and vow to change our lives for the better in the coming year. So, I will leave you with this excerpt from the book:

What up until this moment has felt like a random, disconnected series of unhappy events she now views as necessary steps in a journey toward…enlightenment is perhaps too strong a word, there are others, less lofty, like self-acceptance and perspective.  She has never believed in fate; it would’ve been dispiriting to accept that her life so far unfolded as it did according to some preordained pattern.

Get out there and make your destiny!  Happy 2017!

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