Recently a friend of mine who has read my family-saga novel recommended that I read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline; she felt it was a similar type of story, and that I'd enjoy it. She was right (good call, Rachel!), and I just couldn't resist writing a review on it.
Orphan Train is the story of Molly, a teen-aged girl living in a hostile foster home, and Vivian, a ninety-plus year-old woman who has an attic filled to the brim with eighty years of life history. When the book opens, Molly has recently stolen a beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and has been sentenced to community service as a result; her goth style and sour attitude make it very unlikely that she'll be able to find a suitable place to work those hours in her small Maine town. She resigns herself to being thrown out of her foster home, and placed into a juvenile detention facility.
Her boyfriend, however, has other plans, and asks his mother to pull some strings in order to get her an interview with Vivian, who needs someone to help clean out said attic. Molly is skeptical about getting the job--she's learned that life very rarely goes her way--and she doesn't really want it anyway. Spending fifty hours with a woman who's older than the hills does not sound like a fun way to spend her evenings and weekends.
Of course, she gets the job. And of course, as she helps Vivian sort through the attic, she and Vivian find they have more in common than either expected.
Vivian is also an 'orphan' of the same type that Molly is: after a tragic fire killed the rest of Vivian's family, her mother isn't able to care for her any longer and she becomes a ward of the state. She was sent out of New York on a train with a passel of other orphans to the midwest; when they arrived, the children were given to whoever wanted them for whatever reason, with few or no questions asked.
The bulk of the book tells Vivian's story, while Molly's situation peeps in and out; I won't give any spoilers, but will say that there are surprises waiting for them both as their journeys intertwine.
Why I liked it
Kline does an excellent job of creating complex characters. Molly is the type of teenager that most people cross the street to steer clear of, but Kline makes her likeable, and eventually, loveable. Vivian also could have become a dark, nasty character, but Kline walks a masterful line that avoids making her just cold and damaged or pathetic and saccharine, and gets the reader rooting for her. And while both characters are victimized, she doesn't make the characters victims; this is not an easy job to pull off.
Her story-telling is fast-paced, but still takes time to be beautiful. Her descriptions evoke emotion and a sense of place with deceptive ease, and without disrupting the pace of the story. This is a page-turner; I stayed up until 5:00 am finishing it because I couldn't put it down. And yes, I did cry--but not where I expected to cry.
I would have more of Molly's story, but I think that's just because I didn't want the book to end; in truth, her character arc is well-written, and satisfying. I also had an issue with one element of the ending (won't say more because I don't want to spoil), but that's completely selfish on my part, and had to do with my empathy for the characters rather than what was the best choice for the book!
Will you like it?
If you like books that have a historical element to them ('orphan trains' really did exist, and children such as these really were distributed like pamphlets in the 1920s), or stories that focus on how a character develops over a lifetime, you'll enjoy this book. If you are drawn to intergenerational fiction or books about unlikely friendships, you'll also find this an enjoyable read. I'm happy to highly recommend it.