Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
(description from Goodreads)
The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.
Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.
Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.
It’s taken me a little while to write this. Not because the book was bad or hard to review or because I was busy. No, it’s taken me a while because this book moved me, and because I needed to gather my thoughts. And truthfully, I needed to decide if I wanted to share it.
Do you have books like that? Books that touch you so deeply that you want to keep them all to yourself? Maybe not the book exactly, but your feelings about it? Or am I just weird?
Before I read Orphan Train, I’d never really understood the phrase “hauntingly beautiful.” I totally get it now.
The very first thing that jumped out at me was the prologue. Immediately, I knew this was going to be a beautifully written book. At this point, you don’t know who is speaking or what their story is…but you read this, “I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on,” and you know you’re in for something special.
That line got me not only because it’s so compelling, but because of the message it sends. Can you imagine it for just a moment? Regardless of your beliefs about the afterlife (or lack thereof), isn’t that a beautiful thought? That your best self will live on in others’ memories? If there’s nothing else, I could live with that heaven.
Once I got into the actual story, I had a difficult time following at first. The narration switches between the two main characters, which isn’t so difficult, but then you factor in the tense changes. It throws you off to begin with. You’re constantly having to adjust, to recalibrate your mind to what’s being said and how. Or at least I was. Soon enough, though, it becomes rhythmic, lyrical. The longer you read the less you notice it, until you’ve fallen so far into the story that you don’t even notice there’s something a little bit odd about the writing. Some reviewers have called it poor writing, but stylistically, I think it works.
Throughout the book, you become acutely aware of the fact that Vivian’s definition of family is constantly changing. Take this passage, for example:
As with Dutchy and Carmine on the train, this little cluster of women has become a kind of family to me. Like an abandoned foal that nestles against cows in the barnyard, maybe I just need to feel the warmth of belonging. And if I’m not going to find that with the Byrnes, I will find it, however partial and illusory, with the women in the sewing room.
Spoiler alert: I cried when Vivian left the Brynes, and Fanny told her she was a good girl. She was losing the only kindness she’d known up to that point. It’s where I started to understand what it meant to call something “hauntingly beautiful.”
I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is 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. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
There’s another beautiful passage that alludes to this idea of being broken inside, but of continuing despite the hurt. And of pretending. This time the words come from Molly.
When Vivian describes how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers, Molly nods. She knows full well what it’s like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb. After a while you don’t know what your own needs are anymore. You’re grateful for the slightest hint of kindness, and then, as you get older, suspicious. Why would anyone do anything for you without expecting something in return? And anyway—most of the time they don’t. More often than not, you see the worst of people. You learn that most adults lie. That most people only look out for themselves. That you are only as interesting as you are useful to someone.
And so your personality is shaped. You know too much, and this knowledge makes you wary. You grow fearful and mistrustful. The expression of emotion does not come naturally, so you learn to fake it. To pretend. To display an empathy you don’t actually feel. And so it is that you learn how to pass, if you’re lucky, to look like everyone else, even though you’re broken inside.
I think we’ve all felt, at one time or another, like we needed to pretend. We mustered the courage to put on a happy face and face the world. Maybe we were hurt, maybe we were angry, maybe we were broken. But we continued. It’s because of this that I think so many people have identified with this book – we see a part of ourselves, no matter how small, in all of it.
The writing and the story are both heart-wrenching. Reading this, I felt so much for both Vivian and Molly. They’re quite similar – both give so much to those around them, both put up with so much mistreatment or neglect or apathy….and yet, both hold on to their humanity. As a child, Vivian wanted nothing more than to belong, to have a family. Molly, despite her tough exterior, craves the same thing. Each have their own stories, and each finds family in their own way….and in each other.
Kline has done a masterful job of blending past and present, fact and fiction. Her writing is beautiful, and the depth and breadth of character is nothing short of magical. The book sucks you in, and keeps you there.
I know this review is a little all over the place, and I apologize for that. I’ve tried and tried to put my thoughts and feelings about this book into words…and I fail every time. I didn’t expect to love it the way I did. I didn’t expect to feel just as broken reading this as Vivian felt describing it to Molly. I didn’t expect to feel just as uplifted at the end. I didn’t expect anything I got with this….and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.