Aug 14

Book Review – Orphan Train

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I’d read a children’s book years ago that referenced the Orphan Train, a real part of American history where orphaned children from the cities were shipped out to be given to whomever decided to take them. It’s a fascinating facet of our history, especially seen through the lens of “look at the evil wrought by those who seek to do only good.”
The two stories in this are those of Niamh, an orphaned Irish girl who gets sent to Minnesota, and Molly, a native American girl who’s just about to age out of foster care. Molly meets a rich old lady named Vivian, whose cluttered attic is the perfect match for Molly’s community service requirement. The narrative alternates between Niamh’s life story and Molly’s present-day predicaments.

On one hand, both Niamh and Molly’s stories are very compelling. They are sympathetic and likeable characters facing real challenges, and as a reader (okay, listener) I rooted for them. On the other hand, they’re a little too treacle-y at times. Molly gets community service for stealing. Stealing a book. An old book. From the library. Stealing JANE EYRE from the library. That’s like going to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to save your baby sister from starvation. Niamh doesn’t do anything wrong, except one questionable thing; she’s pretty much the innocent victim her whole life. In this regard, the plot reminded me strongly of a Care Bear’s picture book I read, where a girl (I think she was also named Molly) befriended a kindly old woman and learned the valuable lesson that old wrinkly ladies are real people too.

The story has a conflict midway between Jack and Molly, where Jack questions Molly’s motivations with Vivian, but that felt contrived and largely unnecessary. Come to think of it, the struggle between Molly and Dina also seemed a un-subtle. The real meat of the story is Niamh’s history, as the plucky orphan girl searches for happiness. Niamh’s relationship with Dutchy also felt kind of silly. She hangs out with a boy for a couple days, and then as soon as they meet as an adult, suddenly they’re in love? But in the author’s defense, people in the early 20th century often married complete strangers.

If I had to describe this novel, I’d say it’s a sappy, simple, feel-good women-centric novel about family, loss, and redemption. The tropes are broad and exaggerated, like a children’s novel, though it’s marketed towards adults.  As a novelty, I enjoyed it. If you’re like me, you’ll want to go back in time and adopt Niamh and save her from all the sadness and struggle she suffers from. She’s like a redheaded version of the five little Peppers. Both Niamh and Molly are too good to be true, and most of the bad guys are just bad without redemption, but if you want something sappy and sweet that won’t tax your brain, this novel will probably hit the spot.

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