Orphan Train by Christina Barker Kline

orphan trainThis novel was the selection for High Point Public Library’s first Community Read, a series of discussions and programs focused on one book and similar in concept to Greensboro Public Library’s “One City One Book.”

Although you may have missed the events in High Point, it’s never too late to read the book!  Orphan Train is about a little-known bit of American history.  From 1854 to 1929, trains carried orphans and children whose parents could no longer care for them from eastern cities to the Midwest.  Hopefully, Midwestern families would agree to care for the children and send them to school.  Some children found happy, loving homes, but other families took advantage of the situation to bring unpaid helpers into their households, farms, and businesses.  The author did a great deal of research, including reading numerous first-person narratives by orphan train riders and interviewing elderly people who, as children, had ridden these trains.

The novel begins with the story of Molly, a present-day foster child living with a family in Maine.  The main character, however, is Niamh, an Irish immigrant who, because of a fire in 1929, no longer has a home or family.  When she gets onto the orphan train, she is only nine years old.  She soon learns that most families meeting the train select babies, young children, or boys old enough and strong enough for farm work.  It is hard for girls to find homes, and the people who choose Niamh use her as a seamstress and, later, as a caregiver for several children in a very poor family.  Years later, when Niamh, now going by the name Vivian, is ninety-one years old, she meets the teenage Molly.  Their somewhat similar backgrounds lead to a bond between them.

If you like historical fiction about resilient characters, you’ll want to read this book!  It includes discussion questions for use in book clubs.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

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