Orphan Train



Orphan train by Christina Baker Kline

I'll be honest, I didn't want to read this book. It sounded so depressing. Orphaned children shipped to the Midwest for free labor? Ugh. Heartbreaking!  But as I gained momentum in my reading, I realized that the train is just a starting point. A metaphor for where life takes you. Sometimes you are  merely at the mercy of the route., hopeful for a compassionate conductor. 

While the subject matter is indeed bleak, the main character's perseverance and hope overpower even the worst conditions.  Dorothy focuses on her future, even after Mr.Grotes' "violation." When she finds she will be staying with Miss Larsen temporarily, her "heart is swelling with joy.  Miss Larsen is taking me home with her! I can't believe my good fortune."  Instead of focusing on the tragedies of her recent past, she focuses on the present and considers herself lucky. 

Christina Baker Kline challenges the duality of name and identity.  While names are a major expression of identity for most, names are more fluid for others.  The main character accepts her imposed name changes and these names come to mark sections of her life. She begins as Niamh, the little Irish immigrant girl; older sister to her siblings and (temporarily) to Carmine.  Her name is changed to Dorothy at an attempt to Americanize and acclimate her. As Dorothy she works in the small sewing sweatshop and then survives the squalid Grotes. By taking the name of a deceased daughter at the request of her "adoptive parents," Vivian slides into place as a smart,  hard-working businesswoman at the family's general store.  She keeps this name for the rest of her life, except for her short time with  Hans, when they were once again Dutchy and Niamh.  The name changes symbolized the lack of true identity allowed to Niamh.

The dual storyline was well applied and the similarities between Molly and Niamh are sadly accurate.  The tragedy of unwanted children lives on even though the orphan trains do not.  The intention of the agencies in regards to these children is to place them into any family, some far from worthy.  We are all too familiar with the statistics and tragic outcomes of many cases.  We also know of the success stories; what we hope will happen to orphaned children or those in foster care.  What we rarely see or hear about are the ones who barely made it.  Foster children at the mercy of a system are appreciative of simple necessities. Food, clothes, and safety are constant struggles in both of these characters' lives, but education weighs the heaviest.  Dorothy wants to attend school but is told she will not.  Later she walks miles to attend school merely as an escape from what waits at home.  Molly may not be doing great in school but her love of books as consequences that change the lives of both the women.

I always applaud a novel that celebrates education and great teachers, but I absolutely loved Dorothy's teacher, Miss Larsen. The author did a wonderful job creating her. An underlying comparison came through the story to me with Miss Larsen.  The juxtaposition of her violet scarf and pink skirt against the greasy grey scenery of the Grotes paralleled the transition from black and white to color in "The Wizard of Oz." Both Miss Larsen and Glinda, the Good Witch, send their Dorothys down the right paths to safety.  The Dorothys both wake up safe in bed with someone to care for them.  The dream is over.  The fever has broken.  

The two women's education brings them success.  They each had one person that changed their life in regards to receiving that education. Miss Larsen saved Dorothy by getting her placed with the Nielsons.  Vivian saved Molly by honestly understanding Molly's struggles and assisting her with her portage assignment.  

Christina Baker Kline took a dark social experiment and turned it into a complex examination of place and identity.  What I initially approached with skepticism is now a new favorite book that I am recommending to anyone who will listen.  

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