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Friday, June 10, 2016

Review of ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

3 Stars
Molly, a troubled teen, meets a 91-year-old wealthy widow, Vivian Daly.  Though seemingly very different, it turns out that Molly and Vivian (as a young girl) lead almost parallel lives:  semi-orphaned, they are shuttled from one foster home to another; both belong to marginalized groups; both lose almost everything important in their lives except for a totem piece of jewelry; both are “broken inside”; a book about an orphan is a favourite for each girl.

I enjoyed the historical aspect of the book.  I had not known about the orphan trains which brought orphaned, homeless and destitute children, mostly immigrants, to American Midwest families.  This child migration scheme reminded me of the British Home Children who were sent to Canada and other settler countries

Unfortunately, there are other aspects of the book which I enjoyed less.  The plotting is formulaic.  Niamh’s experiences with the foster families are predictable as are events like her reunion with a fellow orphan.  The ending is very rushed; so much happens so easily and quickly.  It’s just too neat and feels contrived.  Readers who want a happy, feel-good ending will find just that.

There are weaknesses in characterization.  Vivian, a nonagenarian, picks up computer skills so easily!  An orphan, who wants a family more than anything and who never throws anything away, gives up a child for adoption?   There are several stereotypes, the most obvious being Molly’s most recent foster mother, Dina.  She is the epitome of the evil stepmother with no redeeming qualities. 

The epiphanies that Vivian and Molly experience are identical?  They would even use the same words to describe how their personalities were formed by their experiences?   For instance, Vivian says, “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.”  Molly says, “More often than not, you see the worst of people.  You learn that most adults lie.  That most people only look out for themselves.  . . . 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.”

This book has received rave reviews from some people and negative reviews from others.  I am tending to agree with the latter more than the former.  The book is an easy read with simple symbolism and a simple message, characteristics often found in young adult fiction.  That is the group to which I would recommend this novel.  Anyone looking for literary fiction with more depth should look elsewhere.