Tag Archives: adoption

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks; 304 pages; $14.99).

orphan train

            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.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is the She Reads May Book Club Selection.  For giveaways, interviews, discussion, and more reviews, please visit She Reads.

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Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline

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Book Review: And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry

And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry (St. Martin’s Press; 272 pages; $24.99).

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For Katie Vaughn, the first day of spring was always a day of firsts: the day she experienced her first kiss, the day she fell in love, the day she ran a marathon, the day she opened her boutique, and the day she vowed to love Jack Adams forever.  It was also the day she gave up her newborn for adoption in Patti Callahan Henry’s tender, sincere, and deeply poignant novel And Then I Found You, the April Book Club Selection for She Reads.

For Kate, the first day of spring held more than blooming daffodils.  It was still a day of firsts.  Kate had a ritual, a sacred ritual.  She made sure that she did something she’d never done before, something that would count as new on the first day of spring.  Six years ago she’d opened her boutique.  The year before that she ran a marathon with her sister.  Of course there was that trip to California with Norah.  Then four years ago the midnight swim in the darkest water with Rowan, the first time he’d visited her in South Carolina.  It didn’t matter what she did or said or saw as long as it hadn’t been done, or said, or seen before.

The plot of And Then I Found You is as swiftly-paced as the current of Katie’s beloved South Carolina River.  Katie is successful and in a loving relationship with her boyfriend, Rowan.  When she accidentally stumbles upon an engagement ring he bought for her, Katie comes to a crossroads of sorts.  She thought she loved Rowan, but now she finds herself unsure.  The problem is Jack, her first love and the father of Luna, the baby she gave away all those years ago.

To go on with her life, Katie feels like she has to see Jack and talk to him.  Maybe then she can have the closure she needs.  But once Katie travels to Birmingham, Jack’s home, old feelings resurface for them both.

Henry tells the story from the very different perspectives of 35-year-old Katie and 13-year-old Emily Jackson, Katie’s biological daughter.  I truly admired how Henry managed to realistically capture both points of view.  In And Then I Found You, Henry also takes us back and forth through time to provide windows into Katie’s past, crucial moments we must know to better understand her and the narrative. 

And Then I Found You is told with such honesty and heart because, for Henry, it is very personal.  Life often imitates art, but sometimes art can imitate life.

In the story, Katie has two younger sisters.  One, Tara, is a writer.  When Emily begins an online search for her biological mother, links to Tara come up over and over.  Emily contacts Tara through Facebook; this social media connection leads to a reunion.

As Henry explains in her letter to readers at the front of her novel, And Then I Found You is loosely based on a true story.  Henry’s sister placed her baby up for adoption over 21 years ago.  “It was the most heartrending, courageous and difficult decision she had ever made, and we all wept with her when she handed her baby girl to an anonymous, yet hand-chosen family,” Henry writes.  Then, one day, two years ago, Henry received “a Facebook friend request from a young girl with the same birthday as my adopted niece.  It was too much to hope for, almost too miraculous to believe.  But it was true: My sister’s daughter, my niece, found us on Facebook.”  Henry emphasizes the awesome power of social media in her story, and simultaneously inspires and moves us, yes, to tears.

Henry drew me in from the very first page, and I read this novel in one sitting, as I could not tear myself away; I had to find out what would happen.  I was surprised to enjoy this novel as much as I did.  Initially, I worried it would be too sappy and too romantic for my tastes, but my concerns were for naught.

Passionate, stirring, and full of sentiment, this is a story about first love, family, mistakes, forgiveness, and second chances.  I predict readers will fall in love with And Then I Found You, a perfect read for book clubs because it’s so easy to like Henry’s characters.  And Then I Found You is destined to become one of the summer’s hottest beach reads.  Throw this title in your beach bag but don’t forget the sunscreen and sunglasses!

For more reviews, discussions, and giveaways, visit She Reads.

Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

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Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) once wrote.  Vanessa Diffenbaugh might not agree.  The language of flowers is never simple; rather, it is often complex, with multiple meanings.  A daisy signifies innocence.  Ivy implies fidelity.  The meaning of a yellow rose, however, is not as clear-cut.  In some cases, the yellow rose symbolizes jealousy, while in other instances it indicates infidelity.

It is only fitting, then, that Victoria Jones is every bit as complicated as the yellow rose.  Jones is the main character in Diffenbaugh’s debut novel The Language of Flowers.

Rumor has it there was a bidding war among nine (yes, count them, nine) publishers for this wonderful book, and readers will quickly understand the reason why.  In alternating chapters, Diffenbaugh weaves together two timelines, past and present, with seamless grace and ease.

Growing up is hard to do, especially when you are maneuvering through the difficulties of being a foster child.  On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria is “emancipated,” meaning she is considered an adult and therefore phases out of state care.  First, she goes to a half-way house, but soon she takes off abruptly.  She has no job, no place to live, and seeks shelter in a park.

The reader learns early on how much Victoria loves flowers and they seem to love her.  Flowers are easier to deal with for Victoria than people are.  Victoria makes her home in a small garden.  A local florist recognizes her talent, despite her inexperience, and offers Victoria a job.  This leads to her renting a room and meeting a man from her past.

In the other timeline, the reader learns a very young Victoria went to live with a woman named Elizabeth.  After a rocky start, the two grew to understand, accept, and even love each other.

But we know it’s not meant to be from the beginning.  Otherwise, Victoria would never have been a ward of the state at seventeen.  We also know that something horrible happens to separate the new “mother” and “daughter,” and it is heartbreaking both for us and for Victoria.

Past and present meet as the story plays out a satisfying denouement.

The characters in The Language of Flowers are all flawed.  Their imperfections in no way detract from the novel; in fact, their faults actually add to the story and make the individuals more real.

Perhaps the most flawed is Victoria; then again she has every reason to be.  I loved and hated Victoria in equal measure.  She lashes out when she hungers for acceptance.  She hits when she most craves a gentle touch.  She destroys worlds when she only wants to be loved.

Diffenbaugh explores the bonds of motherhood in her debut.  In fact, each character in the novel seems to have issues with his or her mother.  There are pushy mothers, absent mothers, and unsure mothers.  The author awed me when she showed how Victoira felt something was literally and figuratively sucking her very life-blood from her.

Diffenbaugh also gently reminds us that we can create our own versions of family.  Victoria needs help in her own floral business and seeks assistance from her fellow foster kids.  One, Marlena, comes to the rescue.  Marlena, in turn, later hires her own former foster kids to help.  Talk about paying it forward.

The Language of Flowers is also a scathing critique of the foster care system in America.  Diffenbaugh should know.  She and her husband are foster parents to three children.

I feel I must insert a rhododendron here (To those who do not know, a rhododendron means beware).  This novel might make readers cry, as it made me.  Grab a hankie and continue reading.  The Language of Flowers is one of my picks for best novel of the year.  Diffenbaugh, in her powerful first novel, will certainly cause readers to rethink their gardening choices!

 

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