Monday, September 23, 2013

Orphan Train

In the poignant novel Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, Molly is a 16-year old foster kid who’s been hardened by years being shuffled from one home to the next. When Molly faces the possibility of being sent to juvie for stealing from the public library a battered copy of her favorite book, her boyfriend’s mom, Terry, helps out by getting her a community service hours alternative. Instead of juvie, Molly will spend 50 hours helping Terry’s boss, 91-year old Vivian Daly, clean her attic. What starts off as a simple but tedious job turns into a life changing experience for Molly, as each box opened comes filled with both treasured and painful memories of Vivian’s childhood and her experience on the orphan train which took the then 9-year old Irish immigrant from the New York tenements that were her home to Minnesota.

This was a heart-wrenchingly beautiful novel, which uses Vivian’s fictional story to highlight the very real time in our American history when orphan trains transported a reported two hundred thousand children from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1959. The goal was a better life in the country for these young orphans instead of the squalor of NYC tenements but in truth many of these children were merely used as a source of free labor by struggling farming families.

The novel alternates between Molly’s story in 2011 Spruce Harbor, Maine and Vivian’s life in New York and Minnesota from 1929 to 1943. While Molly’s narrative was interesting and compelling, it merely served as a vehicle for the beating heart of the novel which is Vivian. Each word of Vivian’s experiences grabs your heart and squeezes it like a vise, so you feel her utter pain, loneliness, and hopelessness. You want to cry for this child left at the mercy of fate and the unscrupulous adults that touch her life.

While Molly uses her nose ring, Goth clothes and make-up to serve as the protective shell which keeps others at bay and protects her from the next heartache and disappointment, Vivian instead turned inward, to a place deep inside which others couldn’t touch. A disillusioned 9-year old Vivian heartbreakingly states:

“I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary.”

There are a few glimmers of hope in the early years, but they fade quickly like a sweet dream in the morning light. Yet each loss, each painful memory is a testament to the strength of the human spirit for those moments of suffering helped to shape the incredible woman Vivian became.

You read a story like Orphan Train or Room by Emma Donoghue, so full of pain with brief moments of redemption, and it seems like so much fiction. You think no one can suffer that much and walk, talk, breathe, let alone overcome and live or thrive; but it isn’t fiction, its real life for many. Look at the Cleveland three, Elizabeth Smart, or Jaycee Dugard. The human spirit and the will to live and believe that tomorrow can be a better day is a vision to behold.

In closing, please read this book; it is an experience you won’t soon forget. You will be the better for it, for great books like Orphan Train, give you the chance to feel someone else’s pain and to grieve with them and for them, and hopefully come through the experience a little kinder, a little more understanding for having at least figuratively walked in someone else’s shoes.