Much has been written about the orphan train phenomenon, from first person accounts to children’s books, fact and fiction. And since Kansas was part of this history, we even have The Orphan Train Museum located in our state. It resides in Concordia, a mere two-hour drive from Manhattan.
Christine Baker Kline mentions Concordia in her book, which also contains author information, part of an interview related to the story’s inspiration, a brief history of the actual orphan trains, and a reading group guide. Baker Kline is herself the granddaughter of orphans who told little about their childhoods. This, along with her own heritage as part Irish, led her to write interlocking narratives that struggle with the questions of both family history and cultural identity.
She uses alternating chapters to describe the lives of two orphans. One is Molly, part Penobscot Indian, who is aging out of the system in 2011 in Spruce Harbor, Maine. As part of community service she must perform for the theft of a copy of Jane Eyre from the local library, she agrees to help a little old lady clean out her attic.
During their time together, Molly decides to interview the little old lady, Vivian, for a class project. It turns out that she too was an orphan, an 8-year-old Irish waif, who in the 1930s traveled on an orphan train from New York City to Minnesota. The interview deals with the concept of “portage, guided by the questions of what one takes and chooses to leave behind resulting in the ultimate question of what insights are gained from the choices. The detritus of Vivian’s life stored in her attic reflects her lifetime of choices.
“When Vivian describes how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers, Molly nods. She knows full well what it feels like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb.”
There are a great many similarities in their experiences despite the eighty plus years between their orphanhoods…more than one foster family, always being under suspicion, a sense of “otherness,” never having a sense of belonging or permanence but always looking for exactly that. In the end they guide each other to a new and better place.
Considering their lives made me wonder about our fascination with orphans like Cinderella, Oliver Twist, Pollyanna, Heidi, Harry Potter, Tarzan, and Tom Sawyer. Did you know that St. Nicholas/Santa Claus was an orphan? Do we all feel like orphans at one time or another in our life regardless of the reality of our situation, and wonder what answers have been found related to the conditions of otherness and belonging. My favorite contemporary orphan tales are Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Out of the Night That Covers Me by Pat Cunningham Devoto.
I highly recommend the novel for adults and young adults. If reading about Vivian and Molly makes you want to do something for a child in need, you might consider calling Jayme Morris Hardeman, Executive Director of the CASA program at (785) 537-6367, to either donate or volunteer. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates; the Manhattan branch of this national organization was begun by Judge Jerry Mershon.
As an advocate, you can directly help a child in our local community. Another opportunity is available through Judy Davis, Executive Director of The Crisis Center at (785) 539-7935 to donate or volunteer.
Many women who are survivors of domestic violence have their children in tow at the time of their escape. And at the holidays one can help make this season less painful through the “Adopt A Family “ program which provides gifts to those who would not otherwise have them.