The Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC), our state's site for borrowing ebooks and audiobooks currently has over 200 hold requests for the novel Orphan Train Christina Baker Kline. When I placed my name on the hold's list several months ago, there were at least that many holds. Our Winnefox library system has about 40 holds for the several hard copies owned. Such a demand for a book usually indicates that the book has had a lot of promotional press, and, hopefully, that it is a winner. After a long wait, my turn at an e-copy of Kline's newest novel finally came.
I don't want to say that I was disappointed, but in a way I was. I will explain that later. First an overview. The book was a good read and I especially liked how the story of Molly, a present day teenager in foster care, is juxtaposed to Vivian's story. Vivian, now in her nineties and a widower, was born Niamh Power in Ireland. Her grandparents sacrifice to send Niamh and her parents to America, hoping that the young family will find a land of plenty. Instead, they find hardship and prejudice. Her father seeks refuge in the bottle and her mother sinks into depression and anger. When a fire destroys their apartment, Niamh is told that all have died. Like hundreds of thousands of other street children and orphans, she is sent west with instructions to be polite, or more preferably, silent, so that prospective parents will select her. Already nine and slightly large for her age and with flaming red hair, the chaperones are sure that she will be hard to place. In the end, it is her ability to sew which gains her a placement. Note, I say "placement" because like many orphans sent on the trains west, Niamh never really finds parents or a home, at least not for years.
Although Kline calls this book Orphan Train and she explains how much research went into the book, in the end, I think this book is equally about the modern day foster care system and children like Molly. Abandonment and regaining a sense of belonging are the strong themes of both stories.
Why was I disappointed? First, the length is only 271 pages, and I guess I was expecting a mega-novel - a saga that told the life stories of several orphan train riders. Instead, we only have Niamh's story (although she does meet up with a boy she traveled with on the train).
There were over 200,000 orphans sent west and from all the research Kline did for the book, I expected a broader and more intricate scope. There have been many "orphan train' books written for younger audiences, each telling the story of one or two orphans. In a way, I don't think Kline did much more than that. After reading the author's notes about the abundance of historical material about the orphans and their new lives, I've come to the conclusion that I need to seek out some of the primary sources and nonfiction writings that document the real stories. I've been exposed to enough fictionalized accounts; what my interest demands now are the facts, the hard facts!
For those who've read little about the orphan trains, or for those who want a good intergenerational story, I DO recommend Orphan Train. If you're not buying the book, be prepared to be on a waiting list.