Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

From Harper Collins: Orphan Train is a gripping story of friendship and second chances from Christina Baker Kline, author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be. 

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse… 

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns 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. 

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 by Christina Baker Kline is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are. 

My review: 

From a historical standpoint, this book captured my attention. Before I read Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone earlier this year, I’d never heard of the “orphan trains.” Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of orphaned and abandoned children were packed up like damaged goods, shipped from the East Coast to the Midwest, then  passed off to any adult with an interest in a child. Didn’t matter what that interest might be—older boys sometimes became field hands, older girls might end up (as in this book) as nannies or seamstresses. The infants and toddlers most likely went to families who actually wanted a child to become a part of their family, but often the older kids (I’m talking eight-ish and up) sometimes ended up as nothing more than free labor.

We know going into this, the now 91-year-old Vivian Daly must not have been one of the lucky children.  After a tragic fire kills her family, she’s shipped to Minnesota, and due to hear age and red hair, found hard to place. Life is hard—harder than almost any modern day middle class kids can imagine—as she’s bumped between “homes” where she’s treated not better than a slave. She’s exposed to a life no 9-year-old girl should know. But things like that happened back then—and in some parts of the world today, they still do.

 I almost wanted this book to be a middle grade or YA novel. Something about adult novels told by children and in narrated first person point of view throws me off. Several chapters in, I realized Vivian (then Niamh—her name is changed several times thought her childhood) is the same age as my son. And she was about a thousand times more layered, eloquent, mature, and verbose than he could aspire to be on his best day at age nine. But as the story is told in rotating present tense, every time Vivian had these profoundly beautiful thoughts, I stuttered over the prose a bit, remembering she’s only nine. And her only education came by her poor Irish migrant mother teaching her some reading.

If I didn’t currently have a kid this age, I don’t know if this would have phased me, but…

Now Molly, the 17-year-old modern day foster kid, rang more true to me. Her voice was distinctive. There was a clear shift in point of view.  Even though she was older than the young flashback Viv, she seemed  far less mature, yet age appropriate.

I enjoyed the way Vivian and Molly’s relationship grew together, and how by discovering their similarities, they discovered their strengths. Though the times described were often tough, this book was a short, easy, engrossing read. I couldn’t help but be drawn into the story, knowing that since present day Vivian seemed not only wealthy, but content, things would eventually turn out for her—but how?

You’ll have to read it yourself to find out.


Orphan Train is the She Reads May Book Pick.


Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow, 304 pages 

6 thoughts on “Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

  1. Katherine Scott Jones

    Always so interesting to read another reviewer's perspective. I didn't think about the maturity of the 9 yo's voice. I guess when reading I just assumed it was an adult Vivian looking back and speaking for her 9 yo self. But you raise an interesting point. I'd have to go back and reread to see if I stumbled there now that it's been pointed out. Yet you seem to indicate that you liked it. I liked it but didn't love it. I gave it a high rating (4.5 stars) because I thought it was very well done for what it was. It wasn't one of those that I couldn't wait to get back to, but I'd nonetheless recommend it to many people who enjoy this kind of novel.
    My recent post Orphan Train, book review

  2. The Book Wheel

    I agree with the difficulties of reading child's perspective when the prose is very adult-like. When I was reading this, I saw Vivian's portions more asf her adult self talking about her child life, rather than a child talking, which made it a lot easier.

  3. Heather

    I really liked this one. I see what you're saying about the child's perspective being a bit off, but I personally didn't get that feeling and felt that Vivian/Niamh was genuine based on the atrocities she'd faced in her life. Having to go through THAT much as such a young child makes you grow up way too fast, so that's where I felt the point of view was coming from. I also was intrigued by orphan trains after reading The Chaperone! I'm hoping more authors will write about this interesting topic.
    My recent post Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline


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