Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline (f)

At various times in the history of New York City, 10,000 to 30,000 abandoned and orphaned children were living on the Streets of the city.  There were no social programs and no labor laws to address this problem.  Between 1854 and 1929, 200,000 of these children were put on what was referred to as Orphan Trains and sent west.  They ranged from infants to 14 years of age. 

Christina Kline has written a novel about these children, based on her study of the era and conversations with some of those still alive.  Her story takes place in 1929, the last year of this practice.  The story of Niamh, a young Irish immigrant who loses her family in a fire, alternates with that of a teenage girl currently living in Maine. This girl, named Molly Ayer, part Penobscot Indian, is also an orphan.  Her life becomes entwined with that of the now 91 year old Niamh.  As their friendship grows, the reader learns their dual stories and how they come to affect each other's lives.

Through the eyes of Niamh, the reader learns of the frightening and often humiliating circumstances to which these children were subjected.  As the trains moved westward, the children were put on view, reminiscent of slave auctions, in the various cities the trains passed through.  Niamh is placed with two families, who change her name to one more pronounceable, before she finds some happiness with a third couple.  The last family give her the name Vivian which remains with her for the rest of her life.  Vivian's history is not unusual for an orphan sent west.  Most ended up on farms where they were expected to do the work of an adult.  Others met more horrific fates.

Vivian eventually makes a comfortable life for herself, and it is in Maine that her life intersects with the sullen teen that Molly has become.  Their relationship which is rewarding for both is at the center of the novel.  Kline has written an interesting book which sheds light on a little-known topic in the history of our country.  Her characters are believable and well-drawn, made more so by the knowledge that this hard and unforgiving life actually happened to a large number of children, before laws were changed to stop the practice.  I recommend this book as a good story with an accurate historical background.

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