the wonderful world of veena.

19 September 2014

book review: orphan train [christina baker kline].

Two book updates in one week! I know, I can't contain my excitement, either.

Orphan Train took me about 5 days to complete last week, partly because it was short but mostly because I just couldn't put it down. I was hooked from the first line, and there was no looking back from there:

I believe in ghosts. They're the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. [1]

Quickly followed by:

I've come to think that's what heaven is -- a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on. [1]

From there I went on a wild and crazy adventure that wound from Ireland to New York City to rural Minnesota and finally ended in Maine.

Orphan Train tells the story of two very different girls growing up in different eras and different places but who have one major thing in common: neither has a family to rely on.

In the late 1920s Niamh [pronounced "Neeve"] travels with her family from Ireland to live in the tenements in New York City. After her family - parents, brothers, and baby sister - perish in a fire, Niamh is sent to live with the Children's Aid Society, and she soon finds herself on a train bound for the Midwest: the so-called "Orphan Train". Orphans and children living on the streets would be rounded up and sent off to Chicago, Minnesota, and even farther-reaching corners of the country to hopefully be taken in by families along the way. Babies were the "luckiest", as they were usually adopted by childless couples. Older boys were generally picked up by farmers looking for cheap labour to help take care of their lands. But older girls, such as Niamh at the age of 9, were less desirable and were mostly picked up to complete household chores and care for babies and small children.

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. [112]

As we travel with Niamh on her journey west and her ups and downs in finding a family willing to take her in, we simultaneously learn the story of Molly, a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian living in a small town in Maine. Following her father's death and her mother's descent into alcohol, drugs, and petty theft, Molly has been raised in a series of foster families and is one step short of being sent to juvie. To avoid such a fate, she takes on a community service project helping an old widow, Vivian, clean out her attic. As time passes and they unearth hidden treasures in Vivian's attic, Molly and Vivian grow closer as they share stories of their childhoods and learn all the things they have in common.

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. [170]

There were many things I enjoyed about this book, not least of which was the length of it. After taking nearly a month to trudge through the 500-something pages of Americanah, the 275 or so pages of Orphan Train were a breeze. Kline's use of language is clear and concise, and she didn't waste words getting her story across.

But for me, it was the characters and the history that really appealed to me. Both Molly and Vivian are strong characters hiding a deep-seated insecurity about their personal lives. Molly has trouble trusting people because there have been so few people deserving of that trust. Vivian remembers what that was like as a young girl, and even into adulthood she had trouble trusting whenever anything in her life was going too well. The stories the two women shared often brought me to tears, even when I was on the subway and not in a place to let my emotions run free.

Turtles carry their homes on their backs. They're exposed and hidden at the same time. They're a symbol of strength and perseverance. [88]

And then there was the history. I had never before heard of the Orphan Train. My concept of parent-less children in New York City was more along the lines of Newsies, so this idea of shipping children off to the Midwest rather than paying to raise them in orphanages was completely new to me. Based on what I've read since, there are a number of surviving train riders - in their 70s today - still living across the country. Today there are groups that meet for reunions, and according to one article, there are approximately 2 million descendants of train riders as well. If you are interested in learning more about the Orphan Trains, you can click on any of the following links:
I also loved Niamh's descriptions of getting off the boat from Ireland and going through the process at Ellis Island to be allowed into the United States. I loved her descriptions of living in tenement housing in what is now the SoHo / NoLiTa part of the City. I wanted to visit both Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side when I was in NYC last week, but unfortunately time ran away from me, so they have been filed away for my next visit. This book made me interested in learning more about the life of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the concept of "America" was becoming a haven for people all around the world.

In short, I very highly recommend reading Orphan Train, and I would also recommend learning more about this part of American history if you are so inclined.

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