Orphans across America
THE quirky backwaters of history can be rich places of exploration for novelists and so it has proved for Christina Baker Kline. She discovered the existence of "orphan trains" through reading a non-fiction article in an American historical society publication and her interest was caught. But the clincher was the realisation that her husband’s grandfather and his siblings were key figures in the account she was reading. When history met family, the idea of writing a novel based on the orphan trains was born.
Historically, the orphan trains ran in the United States between 1854 and 1929 and transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children. Many of these came from immigrant families from east coast cities like New York.
The children were put onto a train with a predetermined route. In advance of the train arriving at any specific township, posters were displayed advertising the time of arrival and the availability of orphans for adoption. When the train pulled into the station, the children would be lined up and the local people given their pick. Children not selected were then put back on the train and taken to the next township where the selection process was repeated.
It is hard to imagine the emotional turmoil that must have afflicted these poor children, uncertain of where or to whom they were being taken. There also seems to have been little or no effective screening of the suitability of the adoptive parents. Poor Mid-Western farmers saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get free labour from strong looking boys and small businesses welcomed young girls who could contribute to stitching and garment-making. All this for the price of minimal accommodation, food and clothing. No wonder that many of these children ended up in loveless households, victims of exploitation and abuse.
Orphan Train follows the lives of two children, one through the 1920s and 1930s, the other a modern day one.
Niamh Power is the child of Irish immigrants whose entire family is killed in a fire. Boarding the orphan train, she has a baby boy thrust into her arms as, at nine, she is one of the older and more responsible children. The baby is swiftly adopted when the train stops at Minnesota. For Niamh, the train journey in search of a home continues but it quickly becomes obvious that, despite the Christian protestations of charity and "doing good", many of the orphans are simply viewed as a source of cheap labour.
"So you have the opportunity both to do a good deed and get something in return," advises the children’s overseer in his address to the citizens of Minnesota, before adding:
"The child you select is yours for free on a ninety-day trial. At which point, if you so choose, you may send him back." Niamh is taken at the next station by a couple who need an additional seamstress.
Molly is a typical difficult 21st century teenager. With her Goth appearance, nose studs, multiple earrings and stroppy attitude she has moved from foster family to foster family and ended up in one where she is tolerated rather than loved. She has her commercial value as well – the family is paid for looking after her. One of the pleasures of Orphan Train is watching the gradual process by which Molly finds her place and herself.
Sentenced to 50 hours of community service for the theft of a library book, she agrees to help clear the attic of an old lady who is the employer of her boyfriend’s mother. Full of trepidation and near visible hostility, she finds herself committing to the old lady and to her past, and in the process learning a great deal about herself.
Orphan Train is carefully researched and its descriptions of the American mid-West are particularly vivid. After the sewing business collapses following poor stock investments, Niamh ends up on what can only be called a backwoods white trash homestead. In one of the book’s standout episodes, she lives in grinding poverty, forced to make stews from squirrels and whatever game the idle owner can shoot while his wife lies in bed and shouts abuse at her. Fortunately, better things are to come.
First and foremost, Orphan Train is a very good read, and it is not difficult to see why it has become a bestseller. Despite its rather grim subject matter in places, it is ultimately a feel-good novel and one that I am sure will be beloved of book groups, as it offers a deal to talk about. Buried not too deeply in it are probing questions about survival, belonging and identity.
For instance, Niamh has her name changed several times by her adopted parents – is the re-naming a sign of their "ownership" and, if so, what effect does that have on the renamed little girl who finds herself increasingly wedged apart from her real origins?
Reflecting on these matters, she says: "In Kinvara, poor as we were, and unstable, we at least had family nearby, people who knew us. We shared traditions and a way of looking at the world. We didn’t know until we left how much we took these things for granted."
As Orphan Train makes clear, the world can be a very big, alien place when the things we take for granted are removed entirely from our control.