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ISBN: 9781935552017
History Repeating: A Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Marlo Scott

The Orphan Train is a novel by Christina Baker Kline that shows what life was like for American orphans during the 1920s and 1930s, and for foster youth now. It was published in April 2013 and became a New York Times bestseller.

Baker Kline’s words raise awareness about life in the early 20th century, but the book also shows clearly how it feels to be a foster child in any time. The novel captures the pain the foster system inflicts on people.

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Orphan Train moves back and forth between the stories of two girls in foster care. Vivian has been through foster care as a young child, from 1929 into the 1940s. Her journey takes her from New York City to Minnesota to where she ends up, at her fourth foster home.

Vivian’s parents and her siblings died in a horrible fire in their tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Eight-year-old Vivian landed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society.

This part of the book is based on Baker Kline’s research, which she began after she found out that her husband’s grandfather had been an orphan in North Dakota. In 1853 minister Charles Loring Brace and other reformers founded the Children’s Aid Society to help the thousands of homeless and orphaned youth across New York City. The organization still works with poor children today.

Back then, the Children’s Aid Society took New York City youth without parents across America on “orphan trains.” Their aim was to help them find families, but the reality is these families chose you based on your skill set. If you were a boy, families chose you first to do hard labor. Families could not use the young females as much as the males.

Vivian is put on the orphan train with children who have been wards of the Children’s Aid Society for so long they have no memories of their biological family. One is Dutchy, a neglected and abused teenager whom Vivian befriends; another is Carmine, a 14-month-old baby. On the train, “We become an odd little family … Dutchy and Carmine and I in our three-seat abode,” Vivian thinks. She carries Carmine everywhere and she and Dutchy look after one another, as if the two boys are her biological family.

The train stops in Chicago, and Dutchy is chosen by a family, leaving her behind. It’s a lesson in not expecting everlasting relationships with people. Even so, meeting Dutchy and Carmine helps Vivian understand that she can mean something to someone. Thinking about them helps her through some of the more difficult things that she later experiences.

In alternating chapters, we meet Molly, a teenager in foster care in Spruce Harbor, Maine, in 2011. Her father had died in a car accident when Molly was eight. Child Protective Services had removed Molly from her mother’s home due to negligence the following year. Even though Molly is not an actual orphan, she feels like one because she has no support or guidance from her mother, whom she rarely speaks to.

Molly lived in a series of group homes and foster homes until she moved in with her current foster parents Dina and Ralph. She has been there for eight years when the book starts. Ralph likes being a foster parent, but Dina complains about taking care of Molly, which makes Molly more frustrated.

All the moving changes Molly into a moody person, and she transforms her outside to match by “dyeing her hair jet-black accented with purple or white streaks, rimming her eyes with kohl, applying foundation several shades lighter than her skin tone.” Molly is now 17 and does not trust anyone, not even her boyfriend Jack. When they first meet, Baker Kline writes, “Molly was a cat with her back up. Why was he being so nice? What did he want from her? Was he one of those guys who got a kick out of messing with the weird girl?”

image by William Morrow

However, her relationship with Jack grows more important to her over the course of the book. We see her warming up to him: “For the first time since she’s been in school, she couldn’t help herself; she smiled back.”

Molly’s temper leads her into an altercation at school where she faces juvenile offenses. She now has to do community service, but Jack’s mother manages to get her punishment switched over to helping Vivian, who is now 91 years old, clean up her attic.

Molly at first is not wild about this assignment “in a musty attic day after day, going through some woman’s trash.” However, over time, the two begin to bond.

Baker Kline, flashing back and forth between the two girls’ stories, captures the timeless hurts of foster care. Molly hates showing vulnerability and being subject to the whims of heartless people. “If there is one thing she hates most about being in the foster care system, it’s the dependence on people you barely know.”

Yet the way Molly reacts to things shows that she is not naturally rough. Living in the whims of foster care hurt so much that she grew tougher through the years.

There are plenty of terrible experiences for Vivian to get through, too. In her first foster home, her foster parent makes her a sewing slave, and she is not allowed to go to school. In the second home, Vivian’s foster father sexually assaults her, and her foster mom kicks her out. This causes Vivian serious trauma.

Molly and Vivian are able to help each other. As Molly opens up more to Vivian, Vivian does the same and explores her past. Vivian’s experiences help Molly trust her. That is something all foster children really need, someone to trust, and someone to help them build a stable life. Molly introduces Vivian to the internet; this helps her find long lost family members. The two women, generations apart, are able to bond through their past.

Child Protective Services places U.S. foster children in an average of two to three different homes throughout their time in care. Some move to more homes than that, including Molly and Vivian, and it’s very hard on a child. Vivian has been on a train that constantly moves from state to state looking for foster homes. When she found a home, she was not safe. Vivian’s experiences highlight the risks that persist even while in care; Vivian’s sexual assault left her mentally scarred.

Multiple placements leave both Molly and Vivian emotionless. To get their feelings back, foster youth are more dependent on intimacy and serious relationships. Jack becoming Molly’s boyfriend was the best thing that happened to her.

As a foster child, I can relate to both Molly and Vivian on certain levels. I relied on my personal relationships with females to cope with the pain of losing my mother to heart failure and cancer when I was 11. After my mother died, I had no one in my corner committed to caring about my welfare. After I lost my mother, I experienced homelessness, so I know how it feels to sleep on the train. While sleeping you could never feel too comfortable; you have to wake up every now and then to switch stops.

No matter how badly I wanted, or felt like I deserved, a pillow and a warm blanket, there was nothing I could do to change my circumstance. Orphan Train captures how little control you have over your life as a foster child.

Molly cannot do anything to change her foster care predicament, but she still has control over her future. The bond between Vivian and Molly gives both of them hope for more connection and more recovery.

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