Lately I’ve been on a sci-fi fantasy kick, but it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction. Over the past couple of years, this one has been on a lot of lists for book clubs and blogs, so I thought I’d give it a go. If you’re looking for an interesting piece of historical fiction with a healthy dose of sentimentality, then Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline might be the book for you.
From the mid-1800s well into the twentieth century, social welfare organizations in the United States, gathered orphans from overcrowded cities in the East and placed them on trains bound for the Midwest. In stop after stop, the children were paraded in front of townspeople, ostensibly to find caring people willing to open their homes to them. Although some (primarily the babies) were chosen to become a part of a loving family, many were selected to be farm laborers, childcare providers, or even workers in businesses, all with no pay. The signed agreement between the organizations and the “parents” stipulated a certain standard of care and education for the children, yet with virtually no oversight for the parents and no recourse for the children (simply the option to return the child after a trial period of a few months), many children were essentially placed into slavery by the same people they were depending upon to help them.
89 year old Vivian was one such orphan, taken from the only life she knew, and then left to the mercy of strangers. Molly is a teen in the foster care system, working through her community service hours by helping Vivian in her home. Orphan Train tells the fictional stories of their lives and sheds light on this little-known aspect of American history.
This one is a mixed bag for me. The story? I love it. This is a fascinating part of American history that I knew absolutely nothing about. Because of this book, I am motivated to learn more about it. In that respect, the book is a win — five stars. I also truly enjoyed reading Vivian’s backstory; it was both interesting and believable, fitting perfectly with the historical backdrop. Well done.
The chapters set in modern day, however, are somewhat lacking. The characters and situations are highly stereotypical and predictable leaving it feeling a bit thin and formulaic. To make matters worse, the book is rife with inconsistencies and errors in style and story which proved to be a huge distraction throughout. I hate spoilers, so I can’t really discuss them all here, but I will highlight the ones that I can.
Perhaps most glaring issue is the problem with voice. Throughout the book, the story switches abruptly between 1st person from the perspective of Vivian for any stories about Vivian’s childhood, and 3rd person omniscient for any scenes involving Molly. In some chapters, the author provides reasonable transitions in which Vivian began to tell her story, but then completely neglects that in others. Endings are equally inconsistent with smooth transitions out of Vivian’s reveries in some chapters, but abrupt switches to present day in others. Within all of this, the author occasionally loses her way, slipping in a line or two of first person narrative from Molly’s perspective. More than once, I found myself flipping back to verify that the author had indeed, with no rhyme or reason, abruptly switched perspectives again. One more good re-write could have easily solved this problem, but for whatever reason they printed it, faulty perspective and all.
The other issue I have is with word choice. There are several instances where the words used just don’t fit. The one that sticks out to me is the description of one of Vivian’s friends as being “arch and circumspect.” Arch means overtly playful and teasing, kind of cheeky, you know? Circumspect describes someone who is wary and unwilling to take risks. Unless the character has multiple personalities, these two words are completely incompatible. It would be like calling someone a complacent go-getter, or mirthful and dour. Does the author even know what these words mean? Does her editor not know what these words mean? How did all these mistakes make it through to publication? Did no one actually read the book before it was printed? If the requirements are this low, I want a job as an editor at Harper Collins.
Orphan Train is a quick and easy read; it can easily be finished in a few hours. The fascinating history behind the story makes it a worthwhile read, but I would not buy it; this is definitely one to check out of the library. Spots on my shelves are reserved for books that I love and will read time and time again. This one, unfortunately, does not fall into that category.
So, on a more positive note, let’s talk about the history. It’s so sad and completely relevant. There is so much to be learned by examining the lives and lessons of these children. Have you ever heard of the Orphan Trains? Tell me your take on it in the comments below.
Until then, happy reading!
Little Book Reviews