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Book Club Reflection: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

20 Oct

I love when I find a winner with my book club and this is definitely a winner. I wrote a glowing book review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline a few weeks ago and this is my book club follow-up. A lot of the women in this group liked the book (along with our strong male contingency of one) but  not as much as I did. It made for a good discussion.

Two of us had heard of Orphan Trains before reading this book. That’s it! Kline picked a very small part of American history to focus on and I think that’s a winning combination because people feel they are learning while they read. After finishing this book, we all know so much more about a topic we didn’t know existed.

The book made several members want to know more about their family history. We can only learn as much from our grandparents as we gather before they die. I don’t know anything about my great-grandparents and its my grandparents who could tell me those stories. One member brought up a hypothetical question about if you could have dinner with five people, living or dead, who would they be? She’s always said her grandmother would be on that list because there was so much she wanted to ask that she never had a chance to do before her grandmother died. Vivian’s daughter was finally given the chance to talk to her mother and find out about her family history, even if it’s only the bit Vivian’s able to tell her.

A few of the readers thought the book was going to be about Kindertransport before World War II. (If you, like me, don’t know what this is, here’s the Wikipedia page.) In short, this was an effort to remove mostly Jewish children from areas that would soon be occupied by the Nazis and place them in the United Kingdom. Many of these children became orphans and in a sense, their story is like Vivian’s. They were adopted by those around them if their families didn’t survive the Holocaust.

The idea of trains going west reminded a few of us of Jim Fergus’s book One Thousand White Women. The idea of going west seems very permanent, as if those making the journey know they are leaving behind everything they once knew. I’m sure there are other books with this mentality, but these two stuck out to us.

Vivian’s life as an orphan reminded us too much of indentured servitude for us to be comfortable reading it. 200,000 children went through this train system and we only hear the story of a handful. Parts of the stories are wonderful and parts are frightening. It would be great to be able to say that Vivian’s story is unique, but it doesn’t seem that this is the case. This was the beginnings of social work and the system was not yet well established and the employees didn’t know how to deal with it. Take, for example, how Vivian’s near-rape was handled. Did the employee not want to admit something like that would happen, did he not want to deal with it, or did he not know how? Any way you look at it, the system did not have a way to deal with a child in Vivian’s situation.

A few members were bothered that the orphans were expected to work for their stay, but it was pointed out that in the Midwest with big farms and a lot to do, children were an asset because they could do work that the parents didn’t’ have to pay a servant to do. If the orphan had been treated the same as a natural child of the parents, they would still be expected to work the farm. In that sense, it makes sense that the children would be picked for their ability to work. It was the fact that the children were almost advertised for their ability to work that bothered us most. We found it interesting that, like today, babies were so high in demand. This is directly opposite to a child being able to work the land and pull their own weight. These children were wanted because the parents could raise them as if they were their own and shape their lives growing up.

Not everyone was a big a fan of Molly’s parallel story as I was. Though all together, we were able to draw a lot more parallels. Molly didn’t have the best placement life, much like Vivian, but it’s obvious that what’s considered livable has changed slightly since Vivian’s day. Molly was also hard to place because of her rebellious nature, not because no one was looking for a child like Vivian ran into. Maybe the system knew that Dina and Ralph weren’t ideal, but, like the Grotes, they were so desperate to place her that they did it any way.

Molly didn’t seem rebellious by nature, but she marked herself as one. Her Gothic clothing choices made her an outcast and it was a way to set herself apart without having to even talk. It was the easiest way to be alone.

Vivian and Dutchy finding each other seemed almost too perfect to be true. To me, it was the one part that was bit too much to believe. Their marriage seemed to be more about commonality and a shared history than it seemed to be about real love. We wonder if it would have lasted had Dutchy lived. Maybe having someone she could share her history would have been enough.

It seemed odd to us that she would give up her child when it was the only thing connecting her to Dutchy. Especially since she knew what a life without a biological parent could mean for a child. One thing that bothered a few women in our group is how Vivian would have explained to her friends what had happened to the baby. Would she have said she gave it up, or would she have led them to believe the baby was stillborn? A pregnancy isn’t normally something that can be swept under the rug so easily.

Maybe the reason Vivian didn’t have as much remorse about giving up her baby is because she knew babies were adopted by people who wanted a child, not a laborer. Like Carmine, Sarah would be adopted as a baby by a couple who wanted to raise a child.

Were orphanages a better solution to parent-less children than foster care? In foster care, a child can only stay in one house for a certain amount of time before they’re moved to avoid emotional attachment. In an orphanage, a child can be there for a long time, growing attached to other children and those who work at the orphanage. Today’s system works with foster care instead of orphanages, and while some aspects of it seem better, there’s undoubtedly drawbacks.

We felt that adoption is less common in today’s society than it was in the time of Vivian’s childhood. The main reason is that single motherhood is more accepted. Vivian couldn’t stand being a single mother but I think if my husband died in a war, I would still want to raise our child. I know I would be well supported and there wouldn’t be a negative stigma against me.

We wondered why children in books, movies, and real life are always looking for their mothers. Why not their fathers? Is there some attachment we have to the woman who birthed us than we do to the man who contributed the other 50% of our genes? I think I’d be equally interested to know who my father is. I think it ultimately comes down to knowing for certain that the person who gave birth to you is your mother while paternity is sometimes in question.

With so many books being turned into movies lately, we wondered how this book would look as a movie. We don’t think it would do well in Hollywood, but might be successful as a made-for-TV movie, something on Lifetime. It cleaned up almost too nicely at the end and had a perfect bow around it, which we don’t think mass audiences (including ourselves) would take too kindly to.

I apologize to the ladies in my group for how long this took! I’ve been busy moving, but I’m finally settled in my new place. We’ll be meeting to discuss our next selection, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, in a short time.

Until next time, write on.

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