Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks; 304 pages; $14.99).
For thousands of years, the Wabanaki Indians traveled extensively by canoe, portaging from one body of water to another. They had to decide which possessions were necessary and which were not needed on their journeys. The Wabanakis “learned to travel light” and to make logical decisions about “what to keep and what to discard.” The canoes were essential; little else, though, was deemed indispensable.
Molly Ayer, a Penobscot youth and one of the main characters in Christina Baker Kline’s emotional page turner Orphan Train, knows the concept of portaging all too well. At 17, she is months away from aging out of the foster care system. In nine years, Molly “has been in over a dozen foster homes, some for as little as a week.”
As Kline illustrates, life has been difficult for Molly, who has “been spanked with a spatula, slapped across the face, made to sleep on an unheated sun porch in the winter, and taught to roll a joint by a foster father.” If that is not enough to make your heart go out to Molly, consider this: she got her first tattoo at 16 from a 23-year-old man in exchange for her virginity.
People make assumptions about Molly. She has streaks in her hair, a number of piercings, and tattoos. She comes across as tough-as-nails and extremely apathetic. But it’s all for show. Molly is hurting crying out for help.
Molly gets in big trouble when she steals a beat-up and old copy of Jane Eyre from the library and must do 50 hours of community service. Because it’s “better than juvie,” she agrees to help an “old lady” clean out her attic.
As Molly sees it, Vivian Daly, a wealthy widow, has led a full and fulfilling life with everything she could ever want. Interestingly, Molly is guilty of making the same kind of assumptions about Vivian as people make about her.
In reality, Vivian has a tragic past: she was an Irish immigrant and orphan sent by train from New York to Minnesota to be adopted by Midwestern families. In some cases, the families fed, clothed, and educated the children until they reached 18 and mutual love and affection developed. This was not Vivian’s experience. Going from house to house, from family to family, Vivian endures hardship, hatred, and abuse. Everything was stripped from her, even her name.
For Vivian, it was a “pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in.” It really was not a childhood at all, as she knew “too much” and had seen “people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish.” This knowledge made Vivian cautious. Vivian learned “to pretend, to smile and nod, [and] to display [an] empathy” that she did not feel. Broken inside, she was little more than an indentured servant, hoping and praying for the day her time would be up and she would be free.
Molly learns that she and Vivian are more alike than she knows when her American History teacher gives his students an assignment: interview someone about his or her own portage, the moments in life “when they’ve had to take a journey, literal or metaphorical.” He urges them to create an oral history of those they are to interview and ask: “What did you choose to bring with you to the next place? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain about what’s important?” Molly seeks out Vivian, who tells the young girl about the orphan train, a secret she has kept hidden for years.
Kline makes clear that both Molly and Vivian have undertaken a number of portages throughout their lives. Their journeys have shaped their personalities and made them skeptical, guarded, and afraid. Although Vivian seems done with portages, Molly is not and must undergo another in the novel: “She’s a turtle carrying its shell. Jane Eyre, staggering across the heath. A Penobscot under the weight of a canoe.”
In Orphan Train, Kline employs a dual narrative format as she takes us from contemporary Maine to a Minnesota in the midst of depression and war. The author gives us Molly’s perspective in the third person but shifts points of view for Vivian to first person. This marked change underscores the importance of Vivian’s narrative and gives her story more bearing.
Orphan Train is a historical gem, shedding much-needed light on an almost-forgotten period in American history when East Coast orphans were packed up and put on trains headed to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929. Kline not only entertains us and captivates us with such a well-told story but she also informs and educates us, and I applaud her for that.
Solemnity and heartbreak intersperse the pages of this novel, yet Kline also infuses Orphan Train with inspiration and hope. While Molly and Vivian undertake both literal and physical portages, Kline forces us to ponder our own lives: what we take, what we leave behind, and those things that are of utmost importance.