Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,
Many of us who live in the United States today are unaware of the phenomenon known as "orphan trains." From 1854 to 1929, children's aid societies sent more than two hundred thousand children from New York to less populated parts of the country, most often the Midwest. Some of the children truly had been orphaned. Others were abandoned or homeless.
Chaperones accompanied the children on the trains, which stopped at towns where a farmer might want to take in a boy to help with the heavy workload, or a couple might want a girl to help with their younger children. Some children were adopted and became true family members. Many were nothing more than indentured servants.
The children were known as "train riders." When they left the train to be considered by the townsfolk, a child might find his teeth checked by a dirty farmer's hand. Babies and older boys who appeared strong were usually the first to be adopted. Some children might get off the train at one stop after another, only to return––unwanted–– to an orphanage with the chaperones. A number of children also landed in multiple "homes" before they found a place where they were wanted and loved.
I haven't discovered any train riders still living, but it's believed they left behind as many as two million descendants.
In Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline pieces together the intricate fictional story of a 1929 train rider with that of a Penobscot Indian girl in 2011 who is about to age out of the foster care system. Together they create the quilt of an elderly woman who wants her attic cleaned out. Or does she?
Nine-year-old Niamh Power and her family leave Ireland in search of a better life in New York City, but Niamh is alone after a devastating fire in their apartment.
There is no adult on this side of the Atlantic who has reason to take any interest in me, no one to guide me onto a boat or pay for my passage. I am a burden to society, and nobody's responsibility.
Niamh becomes a train rider in search of a home. During her journey, she befriends a young man named Hans, known as "Dutchy." Niamh and Dutchy vow to find each other someday.
Molly Ayer is an unwanted seventeen year old who lives in a foster home.
Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room, just beyond her door. "This is not what we signed up for," Dina is saying. "If I'd known she had this many problems, I never would've agreed to it."
Molly attempted to steal a library book and has been sentenced to fifty community service hours. Her boyfriend, Jack, asks his mother if Molly can fulfill the service requirement by helping the wealthy lady for whom she keeps house clean out her attic––a large task that Jack's mother doesn't want to undertake.
Parallel lives intertwine when Molly meets Vivian Daly.
I believe in ghosts. They're the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.
I am ninety-one years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.
Orphan Train touches on the theme of writing the story of one's own life, but delves mostly deeply into the theme of loss––including the loss of family, but moreover, the loss of ancestry, the loss of a culture. The coming together and separation of people who long to see each other again, but might not ever do so. I tend to dwell on the many losses in my life, but then a book such as Orphan Train reminds me that loss is offset by gains, perhaps more gains than the losses we experience.
As a book I could hardly bear to put down, Orphan Train earns The Janie Junebug Seal of Very Highest and Greatest Approval For Beautiful Writing and Enchanting Characters.
Infinities of love,
You can learn more about the orphan trains at The National Orphan Train Complex Web site: http://orphantraindepot.org/