Monday, August 18, 2014

"Orphan Train": Searching for home

At my new library there is a section titled "Hot Picks" by the new fiction and non-fiction.  "Hot Pick" selections mean because the book is so hot with the library patrons that only  a 7 day check out period  is allotted with no chance for renewal and a $1 a day fee for being overdue.  When I browsed for books to take on vacation, I came across 'Orphan Train' by Christina Baker Kline in the "Hot Picks" section, and although it looked great, I knew that I'd be looking at a $5 fine because we'd be gone longer than 7 days.  Thankfully, my awesome neighbor bought "Orphan Train" and before she even finished reading it leant it to me. How awesome is that?  I finished it in two days because #1) It's short AND #2) It's very good, so I wanted to finish it quickly and give it back to my neighbor.

"Orphan Train" recounts a time in history that I knew nothing about, but now I plan for sure to research.  In the book description it says, "between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck.  Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?" The orphan in question for this story is Niamh, a young, red-headed Irish immigrant who loses her entire family to a fire in their tenement building.  Thrown into the Children's Aid system, she is one of the countless orphans who board the orphan trains like cattle.  She morphs into a new life as Dorothy and then Vivian as she is shuffled from foster home to foster home, even if the first two are far from anything anyone would call home.

The present day narrative that frames the historical story of Vivian's search for home revolves around another girl in her own foster care dilemma.  Molly, the 17 year old, whose hard exterior is just a cover for her hopes and dreams, gets in trouble for stealing a copy of 'Jane Eyre' at her library.  Her foster mother shows nothing but disdain for her and wants to send her away for committing another act of insubordination.  Because this isn't Molly's first offense, she could face serious penalties, but her dreamy boyfriend, Jack, hooks Molly up with her mom's employer, an old woman named Vivian who lives in a huge mansion and needs help cleaning out her cluttered attic.

As Molly and Vivian clear out box by box, they both face their own dilemmas of the past and present and piece together a meaning of home.  They partnership is mutual and they both grow and learn from each others' stories.

Although at times, the Molly narrative rings false, Vivian's story of immigration, separation and salvation save everything and make this book more than worthwhile to read.  It's also fast as the narrative moves at a solid clip.  The details fade a bit at the end of the narrative and I was left wanting to have more information about Vivian's adult life, but just like life moves in fast forward and stop action motion, this book does as well.

The ending feels like a Hollywood sort of wrap up.  I can almost hear the surging music, but I shed real tears for Vivian and all that she went through in the course of her orphan experience.

We are all on a journey.  Some of us have longer more painful travel experiences than others, but hopefully we can all get to the peaceful place of acceptance of the past to move forward in the present and welcome the future. Near the end of the book Molly, while sitting in a rocking chair in Vivian's kitchen thinks that "for the first time she can remember, her life is beginning to make sense.  What up until this moment has felt like a random, disconnected series of unhappy events she now views as necessary steps in a journey toward . . . enlightenment is probably too strong of a word, but there are others, less lofty, like self-acceptance and perspective."

Any book - a "Hot Pick" or not, that helps me to get closer to self-acceptance and perspective by living the journeys of the characters is worth reading.  A book that combines that and teaches me something about a time in history that I didn't know existed, makes it to the top of my "to read" list.

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