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Friday, January 23, 2015

Orphan Train

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a copy of this book as part of the Cambridge (MN) Public Library reading group. I borrowed a copy from them. Some of the views in this review came from our discussion of this book.

Orphan Train tells the story of Vivian, an orphan who rode on the orphan train from New York to Minnesota in 1929. The story describes in great detail the conditions on the train, as recalled by real orphan train riders. Kids were expected to behave at all times, and were to be clean and neat. The train would stop at various locations, and the children would be paraded out to be seen and possibly adopted by parents. Babies were picked first, then boys for their strong backs. Girls were picked last. Vivian was transferred to 3 different families. The book describes the conditions she lived and worked in. In 2011, Vivian meets Molly, a 17-year-old girl in foster care who needs to complete 50 hours of community service as a condition of her probation. Molly's service is to clean Vivian's attic. Along the way, they form an unlikely friendship.

Orphan Train is based on the real orphan train that ran from New York to the Midwest from 1854-1929. The goal was to get the kids out of New York and into a more positive environment. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. The book describes parents looking the kids over like pieces of meat. It reminded me of scenes from Roots, where the slave owners were looking over the new slaves before the auction. And in most cases, they were virtual slaves. The boys were expected to do the heavy lifting on the farm, which many of them had no idea how to do, and the girls were expected to stay home and help take care of the kids. They were supposed to go to school as part of the contract, but this was rarely enforced. If anything like sexual abuse happened, the placement agency didn't believe the kids, and said that if they didn't like it, they could always go back to New York.

The story bounces from 2011 in one chapter to the 1920s-40s in the next, as Vivian tells her story to Molly. This is similar to the format in the movie Titanic, where Rose went from present day (19970 to 1912 in successive scenes. It could be a bit jarring at times, and hard to keep track of. Fortunately, the author labels each chapter with the year and the place, so you don't get too lost. The copy I had contained extra pages with pictures from the actual orphan train riders. The program stopped in 1929, so most orphan train riders are well over 90 years old now, and probably will all be dead in a few years. All in all, a good book.

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