Book review: Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train, New York: William Morrison, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishing, 2014
The first appeal of this book was the historical context: the so-called "orphan trains" that carried as many as 200,000 orphans and homeless kids from the East Coast to most of the states in the interior of the country during 1854-1929.
The short version is: well-meaning social workers and benefactors (the Children’s Aid Society of New York and others) took kids ages 6-18 off the streets and out of institutional settings, and transported them to other states where families almost literally grabbed the children off the trains and took them into their homes, for good or ill. Some of the “orphan train” kids are still living.
Kline creates believable characters. Niamh Power, the Irish lass whose family fled Ireland in the early 20th century, is the hardiest of the hardy. One is tempted to say that her life of struggle, obstacle, and success is a fantasy of the novelist’s musing. Perhaps it’s more credible to suspect that Niamh’s trajectory is all too characteristic of many of the “orphan train” kids and the grownups who thought they were helping them and the grownups who didn’t think that….
Another character, Molly Ayer, the modern goth lassie who interacts with the nonagenarian Niamh, is a puzzlement. She’s a foil and an analog for Niamh—her story is a provocation in Orphan Train, it adds interest and it injects a diffusion of clarity. I assume that’s what Kline wanted.
This would be a more compelling story if it were a shorter compelling story. The point is clear: the child’s life was a succession of individually exceptional but dully repetitive episodes of joy, sadness, and degradation that, frankly, would kayo most kids, most people. Even at 278 pages, Niamh’s tale is overwritten and restated, time after time after time.
This is a respectable, perhaps a superior composition. There are simply too many notes.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.