Tag Archives: orphans

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.


Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, She Reads

The Orphan Master’s Son

In a brilliantly crafted twist, it was actually Kim Il Sung who famously said, “Ask not what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can do for you; ask what you can do for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or at least according to Adam Johnson in his new book, The Orphan Master’s Son.  Early on in the novel, it was clear to readers that we were in a very different and even strange world.  Think of Alice as she is transported through the looking glass.  History had been rewritten.  North Korea was the greatest nation on the planet, and it provided for other nations who had been stricken by famine and natural disasters.   Most citizens felt free and could not imagine another kind of life.  But this was not true for Johnson’s hero, Pak Jun Do.




Part one of Johnson’s novel was called “The Biography of Jun Do.”  Pak Jun Do was a man who could take on the role of anyone; his name, in fact, was a play on the English name “John Doe.”  As Johnson wrote, “Jun Do’s mother was a singer.  That was all Jun Do’s father, the Orphan Master, would say about her.”   Growing up in the orphanage Long Tomorrows was hard for Jun Do.   As the oldest boy at the orphanage, he had many responsibilities, one of which was “renaming the new boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.”  His father showed “no favoritism to his son, the only boy at Long Tomorrows who wasn’t an orphan,” and he showed no love either.


Throughout the novel, I could not help but wonder if Jun Do did not invent the scenario of the orphan master being his father, just as he invented so many things in the book.  Again and again, Pak Jun Do was like a snake: he shed his skin to become something or someone new.


He became a tunnel soldier underground in the Demilitarized Zone.  Then, Jun Do assisted in kidnapping Japanese people.  He literally plucked some from beaches.  In one instance, Jun Do and Gil, a translator, kidnapped a man who was strolling on the beach with his dog.  After they kidnapped the Japanese man and got him into their boat, Jun Do still heard the howls of the canine.  “No matter how far out they got, its baying carried over the water, and Jun Do knew he’d hear that dog forever.”  For me, brazenly sailing in Japanese waters, not to mention kidnapping Japanese citizens, was quite implausible.  Yet, this all seemed to go back to the North Korean vision that the country and its people were invincible.  At times, Johnson’s vision bordered on the absurd, but a reader just has to go with it.


Jun Do shed his skin yet again, but this time he became a radio operator on a shrimp boat.  He heard many different transmissions, including a chess match played on the International Space Station.  The highlight, though, for Jun Do was the girl rower, the one who rowed in the dark.  “Each night she paused to relay her coordinates, how her body was performing, and the atmospheric conditions.  Often she noted things—the outlines of birds migrating at night, a whale shark seining for krill off her bow.”  The girl rower mesmerized Jun Do.  In another impossible plot twist, Americans boarded the shrimp boat and ripped up photos of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, creating an international incident.  I was quite surprised some instances between the US and North Korea did not start a war, in fact.


The struggle with the Americans led Jun Do to Texas on a North Korean diplomatic delegation to meet with a state senator there.  This section made me laugh.  The craziness, the comedy, was just too absurd.  However, Johnson’s skills with dialogue shone through as we saw just how North Koreans see Americans and vice versa.


In an exciting twist, the North Koreans imprisoned Jun Do.  But he was not finished with his shape shifting.  Oh, no.  Part two of Johnson’s novel was called “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” and it was here that Johnson’s storytelling was well-crafted and intriguing.  Commander Ga was like the Brad Pitt of North Korea; his wife, Sun Moon, was the equivalent of Angelina Jolie.  My point is that Commander Ga and Sun Moon were famous, good-looking, and wealthy, at least by North Korean standards.  Jun Do assumed the identity of Commander Ga, something everyone knew, even the Great Leader, but they allowed it to happen anyway.  Why?  Because Jun Do did a better job of being Commander Ga than Commander Ga!


How could a former orphan assume the identity of a powerful North Korean official?  Jun Do was not an ordinary character, and he made it a practice of changing his identity just like he changed his clothes.  Sometimes, though, Johnson crossed the line from irony and stepped into absurdity and farce.


Much of North Korea and its practices are farcical, though, so I forgive Johnson.  He uses farce to make a point and also to tell the story, and it is a point that needs to be reiterated: North Korea is a sham state.  The Orphan Master’s Son is part mystery/thriller and part drama, but it is also equal parts comedy.  North Koreans in Texas?  Whoever heard of such?  Johnson does it deliberately, and it works when taken as a whole.  His story stands out more when readers see it through the lens of irony, comedy, and absurdity.


Not everything, though, was comedy.  One scene reminded me of the 2009 release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were held in prison in North Korea.  They were released only when former President Bill Clinton helped negotiate on their behalf.  The North Koreans captured Jun Do’s girl rower and imprisoned her for more than a year.  Kim Jong Il himself visited her and had her translate his works.  The senator from Texas and his entourage travel to North Korea in a kind of exchange: something for something.  The North Koreans will release the American rower only if the Americans return something very important to Kim Jong Il.  There was intrigue galore in this section.


Johnson’s novel works well.  In The Orphan Master’s Son, he lifts the veil on North Korea, a closed society made up of secrets, half-truths, and often downright lies.  We just do not know much about the inner workings of the nation.  For example, when Kim Jong Il died back in December 2011, the North Koreans kept it a secret for 51 hours after it occurred.  We know even less about his son, Kim Jong-un, his successor.  That gives Johnson room to play and room to invent.


Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford and lives in San Francisco.  His previous works are the short-story collection Emporium and Parasites Like Us, a novel. The Orphan Master’s Son has been hailed as one of the best books of 2012, and it is easy to see why. 


Just who is Pak Jun Do?  Well, this is North Korea, and in North Korea, nothing is as it seems.  “There’s no way around it; to get a new life, you’ve got to trade in your old one.”



Leave a comment

Filed under book review, books, fiction