Tag Archives: Foster Care

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 Goodreads.com

Cover image via Goodreads.com

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.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (3/5). Talk about a narrator that’s hard to like.

17 Jun

When one of the ladies in my book club recommended this to me, I was a bit hesitant but added it to my list anyway. When I saw it for 75% at a B&N closing sale, I had to pick it up. And then when the other bookie girls at work were looking for a book to read together, I volunteered my copy and they picked it. I’m glad I listened to that recommendation even though I was hesitant at first.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

 The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria is about to age out of the foster care system and frankly she couldn’t care less. She’s only ever loved two things in her whole life: Elizabeth and flowers. Since she lost Elizabeth, she clings to flowers as tightly as possible. Elizabeth taught Victoria that there is a language of flowers and that people can communicate with the flowers emotions as specific as misanthropy and secret love. Victoria finds herself a job in a flower shop to pay rent and be close to the flowers she loves. Her natural talent finds her in the flower market where she sees someone from her past who will profoundly change her.

And now the spoilers. The story bounces back and forth between Victoria at 18 and Victoria at 11 when she lived with Elizabeth. The story’s unwind simultaneously and we discover that Elizabeth almost adopted Victoria but didn’t feel she could give her the family that a child ‘should’ have. Elizabeth wants to reconcile with her sister, Catherine, and nephew, Grant, to give Victoria a family, but Catherine’s illness makes this impossible. Elizabeth feels at a loss and Victoria feels rejected. In rage, she burns Elizabeth’s vineyard and claims abuse. In modern-day, Victoria meets Grant who has continued to live in the language of flowers and growing the blooms on Catherine’s farm. The two connect over their shared past and become lovers quickly, but when Victoria discovers that she’s pregnant, she’s not sure she can face raising a family or spending her life with one person.

I was hesitant at first, but I enjoyed the book more as it went on, though I was disappointed by the ending. Thus the 3/5 rating. Victoria is very unmotivated and very misanthropic at the beginning when she shuts out the only person that’s ever taken care of her. When she’s offered help, she turns away from it preferring to rough it on her own. She grows to be a small part of a family eventually and becomes more likable. I thought the ending was too happy. For such a down book, it had a very upbeat ‘the world is smiles and rainbows’ ending. I didn’t buy it.

I’ve never intimately known someone who is a product of the foster system, so I’m not a good judge of how accurate Diffenbaugh’s portrayal of Victoria is. Diffenbaugh herself is a foster parent and I trust her judgement that Victoria is an accurate portrayal. My coworker and I started discussing the book a bit and she was expecting the book to mention sexual abuse at the hands of foster parents but Diffenbaugh stuck to verbal and physical abuse.

Grant was by far my favorite character. He was so loving toward Victoria even when she pushed him away. He loved his mother, too, in his own way while she was alive. He came off as such a good person, it was hard not to like him!

It was hard for me to relate to Victoria but I could find myself relating to Elizabeth. She wanted someone to love who would love her back unconditionally and I think that’s something a lot of people look for. I’ve known for a long time that I eventually wanted to get married so when I dated, I was looking for someone to love me back unconditionally and I’m lucky that I found him early in life. Unfortunately, Elizabeth took it a bit too far and wanted to develop a traditional family when one wasn’t needed, but I think her heart was in the right place.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I liked the flashback scenes to Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. It gave a really good background into her character and helped explain why she was acting the way she did in the present part of the book. I liked that the author told that story slowly because it kept me engrossed in the book and wanting to know more!

As I said above, the ending was really disappointing to me. Victoria’s story was so much about loss and abandonment that it felt wrong for it to have a happy ending. I felt it would have been more appropriate for her to have either Grant or the baby, but both seemed like a stretch. I don’t think her character was ready to handle both relationships and I think she would have snapped.

Overall, the book was about forgiveness. Elizabeth had forgiven Katherine but Katherine couldn’t forgive. Elizabeth forgave Victoria but Victoria couldn’t forgive her. Katherine’s loneliness killed her while Victoria was able to reconcile with Grant, her baby, and Elizabeth and have a happy ending. I don’t like how it was told, exactly, but it works.

Writer’s Takeaway: I loved how Diffenbaugh used the language of flowers to give the story guidance. The subject kept coming up in so many parts of the book and affected so many of the characters in different ways. It helped Renata’s customers find happiness, it helped Victoria establish a successful business. It helped Grant connect with Elizabeth. I loved how central it was to the book and that gave it a very ‘real’ feeling to me. Characters should be passionate about something the way I’m passionate about writing or my co-worker is passionate about golf. Victoria had a passion for flowers.

I enjoyed the meanings in the names. The daughter’s name Victoria who lost herself in a Victorian language of flowers. Grant even names their daughter after a flower (Hazel). It was subtle, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Slow start and slow end, but I enjoyed the middle. Three out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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