Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline
The touchstone of humanity is our linkage and interdependency with others – family, friends, work associates, and on and on. But what happens to your humanity if those people, those interdependencies are taken away from you, time after time? This is Kline’s question in Orphan Train, orchestrated in the life of an orphan, a girl named Molly. No, not an orphan, really; her mother has been alive, but the mother’s given her up. She’s a tough kid – a goth – with the paint and posture to armor her against her constant losses.
But something serendipitous happens to Molly. She’s stolen a classic book from the library, and her punishment is to clean the junk from the attic of Vivian, a well off, elderly woman. But this woman has more in common with Molly than either expected, and their bond grows beyond loss, beyond the many sorts of violation both women have experienced.
As such, the book is a romance. Not a traditional romance, but one of two people from different generations, interlinked by similar pasts, similar losses. Together, both find meaning to their lives and trust in one another.
Kline has melded these two lives by interspersing Molly’s brief years with diary-like passages that chronicle Vivian’s much earlier years as an orphan. This structure works to a point, but the author spends too much time with peripheral details that have little impact on the burgeoning relationship between the two. But then she may have had a much longer novel in mind, a novel that would have given these disparate parts adequate time. The title’s image of a train is historical, and it’s a metaphor, too. In Vivian’s younger years, she and other orphans are ridden around the U.S. on a train, seeking families to take them in. Too, it’s the metaphor of the sexual abuse, the slave labor conditions, the name changes and family swaps that all but erase their identity.
I like much about this book. Kline’s prose is often elegant, her eye, ear, and nose for scene are gifted. And it brings into modern times the story of orphanages, stories at least as old as those of Charles Dickens.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars