Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline

orphanThe most interesting feature of the book is not the story but the history. The use of Orphan Trains for a period of 75 years, without true regard for the conditions into which these innocent children were placed, was heretofore unknown to me. Considering the sudden discovery of what we can only call “orphan planes” in our current society, moving and depositing homeless South American and Central American children, from state to state, into communities with no infrastructure for them, is heartless. However, the circumstances for these children are different from those orphaned children who found themselves in America, alone after some tragedy, with no home and no one to care for them. The children crawling over the border are illegally entering the country, inspired to do so by their parents who then, perhaps, hope to be allowed to join them. Should they be returned to their own homes, to their own countries? Who is responsible, the country that pushes them to America or America for not better protecting its borders? Who is going to support them? Aren’t they committing a crime, albeit at the behest of an adult who remains outside of our laws? Should we be asking for volunteers to take them in after more careful scrutiny than the days of the Orphan Trains? The book made me think on these questions.

The novel itself contains two parallel stories, one takes place early in the 20th century, from 1929-1943, and the other takes place in 2011. They eventually interconnect in a coherent manner, but there are times when the cohesive thread tears away a bit and the reader may feel confused. Two females who have had lives of deprivation and heartache somehow come together and find happiness. Molly, seventeen, is a teenage rebel. Her father has died, her mom is into drugs, and she has been in a number of foster homes, unable to find a suitable place for herself or to stop trying to get negative attention. She has striped hair, nose rings and many earrings. She describes herself as Goth. She commits a rather innocuous kind of a crime and is sentenced to community service. Her boyfriend seems to simply be the vehicle used to introduce her to Vivian, ninety-one, a woman who has survived and prospered in spite of her sad beginnings. Jack is not a very well developed character, nor is his mother, Terry, who convinces Vivian, at the behest of her son, to hire Molly to help her clean her attic in order to complete her community service.

The story is contrived, but very interesting. It grows into a bit of a fairytale since “all’s well that ends well”, seems to be the message of the novel. However, the intimation that foster parents are pretty much evil, taking in children only for the money, pretty much using them as workhorses, is untrue, although there are certainly rotten apples in every basket. I was a foster parent, and I did it for altruistic reasons, not financial concerns. I hope there are far more like I was than the ones described in the novel. I spent far more than I was allotted for the teenager I cared for, and I would have sent her to college, on my own dime, had she stayed. However, social services saw fit to return her to her home. Although she returned to me a short time later, asking to come back, she refused to go through the system again, so I could not take her back. Her father, an anti-Semite, believed that while I, a Jew, did not intend to steal his child, other Jews might do so. I had never heard of this fear before, but the memory of that incident brings me back to the storyline; I couldn’t help wondering if the Schatzman’s were German Jews, since the name could very well be of Jewish origin. Could the author have an unwarranted, negative hidden inference here?

I thought there was also an interesting message in the book regarding the care and treatment of the elderly. Vivian languished until Molly entered her life. Molly provided added meaning to her days, treated her as if she had ideas that mattered and gave more purpose to her life. Her housekeeper treated her like a frail person with limited capability. Molly treated her like a “woman of substance”. Molly began to look forward to spending her days together with Vivian and vice-versa. Everyone wants to be accepted as a valued human being.

Another theme was the negative misjudging of innocent victims of circumstance, never giving them the benefit of the doubt. I thought that our penal code could benefit from a bit more thoughtfulness, rather than the over-coddling or over-punishing of those in the over-burdened system. In our haste to judge others, we often misjudge them and, instead, experience the joy of schaedenfreude, a nasty, highly unnecessary pleasure, if there ever was one.

So, although I found the storyline rather conveniently arranged, I thought there were many underlying themes that were ripe for discussion. All in all, it was a very moving story about a time in our history when the Children’s Services, designed to protect children, tragically failed the most innocent who were in the worst of circumstances. Yet, the message of this book seems to be their fate might have been far worse had they been left on the streets. I contend that their fates would have been far better had the recipients of these children been screened and monitored. The idea that this story was based on a true historic episode is horrifying to me and should not be dismissed so easily. Perhaps, if we paid more attention to the abuses government and charitable agencies commit, we would accomplish more, in the end. Abuses still exist today.

The writing style seemed to be more fitting for a YA novel, than an adult novel, and perhaps it should be considered as a crossover. Young adults could learn a lot about what they have in their lives to appreciate if they take the time to stop and consider that the main objective of these children, in this novel, was simply to survive.

About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Books for Adults, Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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