Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Orphan Train

Snow days are absolutely lovely. Here we are on our third this week, and since we were coming off of a three day weekend when the snow hit, that means I have had almost an entire week to just relax....and read. When given free time, and especially if I do not have anything else important to do, I can devour books. It is a little sickening with the speed I read, but I kind of love it since it allows me to read more books, though my bank account (and possibly my husband) hates it since Amazon, Books-A-Million, and used bookstores around Richmond get that much more of my money. Oh well.

When I am in need of a good book recommendation, the first place I look is Erika Robuck's blog. Robuck, author of Hemingway's Girl and Call Me Zelda among others, writes about and reviews historical fiction. Her writing is amazing and her reviews are always spot on. When I see a book that is particularly interesting, I almost always buy it and keep it in the "too read" pile in our home office/library in order to have it within easy reach for free days when I want to lose myself in a book. Such was the case with Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

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Told in beautifully evocative prose, Orphan Train juxtaposes the perspectives of two very different women, revealing what has happened to each of them and how the parallel lines of their lives converge to showcase the similarities between them. 

Molly Ayer is a seventeen-year-old girl who has bounced around between foster homes and is now in a situation involving petty theft (stealing a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, to be exact) that requires community service of some kind. Enter Vivian Daly, a wealthy ninety-one year old woman who hides the secrets of her turbulent past in the trunks and boxes in her attic, trunks and boxes that her housekeeper believes need to be cleaned out and organized. With Molly's help, Vivian delves into her past and reveals her story--not just to Molly and the reader, but also to herself, as she has kept her past hidden for so many years.

Vivian, born Niamh, is left alone in New York after her family is killed in a fire. She is taken in by Children's Aid and is sent West on an Orphan Train, a train filled with orphaned children who will hopefully all find new homes. What Niamh finds instead is mistreatment, suspicion, and abuse. 

While on the train, she meets other orphans, one of whom will ultimately play an important role in her life. However, most of the other characters disappear into the background as the story focuses on Vivian and Molly and how the two work to reconcile their pasts, which, despite their seventy-four year age difference, are not as different as they originally thought.

Not knowing much about the history of orphan trains, I was immediately enthralled in the story, especially with that of Vivian. Her childhood is heartbreaking, but even with all the horrible things she endures on her journey to find belonging, she is able to overcome them with courage and tenacity. Molly's background, however, is neither as interesting nor fleshed out as Vivian's, but in this case, I guess it works since the book does focus more on Vivian's life than on Molly's.

At 278 pages, Orphan Train is a pretty quick read, but even after you finish it, the characters, especially Vivian, stay with you. Some books leave you wanting more, and in this case, it left me wanting more of Kline's writing.

I give this novel a 9 out of 10 for its beautiful and heart-wrenching writing and character development.

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