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Book Review: The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (5/5). Life sucks and it has always sucked and will continue to suck.

22 Sep

This book was recommended to me twice by two people whose opinions I greatly trust. The first is my mother. She’ll recommend a book to me but I know she really really liked it when she buys a copy for my grandmother and gives it to her, especially when it’s not for a holiday. And that’s what this was: one of those “You have to read this right this second I’ll drive to Ohio to give it to you” recommendations. The second person was one of my supervisors at work. She’s always reading and when we talk about books, she’ll sometimes tell me the book she’s reading is worth picking up and I’m seldom disappointed. This one she offered to give me because she had two weeks left on her library rental period. I waited a month for my book club to pick it up but I almost wish I hadn’t.

Cover image via

Cover image via

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Molly has been around the foster care system long enough to know how things work. She’s well aware that her foster-mother can get rid of her in a heartbeat if she’s not behaved and that stealing a book from the library and being sentenced to 50 hours of community service is not exactly model behavior. Luckily, her boyfriend, Jack is able to find her some work helping 92-year-old Vivian clean out her attic. Molly comes to learn that Vivian isn’t just some rich old lady living in a huge house. Her roots are much like Molly’s. When she was 8, Vivian rode the Orphan Train that took her away from New York City and deposited her in the Midwest with no family and no guarantees for her future.

I started out very skeptical of this book. The foster care system structure immediately made me think of The Language of Flowers, which isn’t a bad comparison, but gave me some preconceived ideas of how Molly was going to act. But she blew me away. Her relationship with Jack was a lot more than I was looking for in a high school relationship and I liked that. I also got a lot more out of Vivian than I was expecting in her older years. I though Kline was going to present her as a pure storyteller without giving her much action in her older age, but she went beyond my expectations. Everything about this book was so much better than I thought it would be.

I thought the characters were brought to life very well. Kline gave them the layers the people I know have; a set of necklaces with meaning, a dislike of technology, being quick to defend one’s mother. This added a lot to the story for me because the characters jumped right off the page.

Jack was my favorite character. He was so supportive of Molly and went out on a limb for her when she needed it. For a high school boyfriend, he was very devoted and when Molly moved in with Vivian, continued to be supportive of what Molly needed, even if that wasn’t ‘normal.’ He tried to help win over his mother in Molly’s favor, which I know can be a challenge to undergo. He was a great side character and I enjoyed him a lot in the book.

I related to Molly’s frustration because I felt very caged in for a good chunk of high school. I wanted to be on my own and allowed to make my own decisions. I wanted to make mistakes. Molly wanted the same things, but the people holding her back weren’t her parents and in the case of Dina, didn’t even want her around. I sympathized with her anger and her desire to feel like her own person.

Christina Baker Kline Image via the author's website

Christina Baker Kline
Image via the author’s website

I loved when Vivian and Luke found each other. I thought it was the sweetest moment and it was just when she needed it most. She shouldn’t have been out with the two girls she was with any way, and running into Dutchy was so perfect. I thought it was a little predictable that they would find each other again, but I liked how Kline put it in a location no one would ever expect. It was a good curve ball.

I found it hard to read the times where Dorothy/Vivian was treated badly by her foster parents. Seeing her treated like a slave to make ladies dresses was bad enough, but the rape scene with second foster-father was even worse. I worried something like that would happen because I was just beginning to like him as a character. It seemed like whenever there was someone good in Dorothy/Vivian’s life, something was about to go wrong.

The way Vivian and Molly define family was a very prominent theme for me. Molly had an attachment to her late father, but didn’t seem to set down roots with anyone except Jack until she became close to Vivian. Vivian was able to find a bit of a family connection wherever she went. First it was Fanny, then her teacher, and lastly the Dalys. It seemed natural for Vivian to accept Molly as family. For the first time in a long time, she was able to find someone who defined family the same way she did.

Writer’s Takeaway: Juxtaposing Molly and Vivian in a lot of the chapters helped make this book more accessible to a wide range of readers. Elderly readers would relate to Vivian, younger readers to Molly and Niamh. The wide age gap, though it leaves a big range of readers who don’t relate, created a good dynamic. Being between the two characters in age, I related more to Molly and a younger Vivian, but elderly Vivian reminded me of my grandma and I still adored her. I think the diversity of the characters was a strong point of the novel.

Great story, great pacing, great characters. A full Five out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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