ORPHAN TRAIN (2013)
Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow 979-0061950728
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I believe in ghosts. They're the ones haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened…. Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God. They fill silence with their weight, like bread dough rising under cloth.
These words from the prologue of Christina Baker Kline's new novel give us a sense of Baker's facility with prose and set the table for the literary feast that unfolds. They come from 91-year-old Vivian Daly, born Niamh Powers, but also known (in succession) as just plain "Dorothy," Dorothy Nielson, Vivian Nielson, and (finally) Vivian Daly. As Gillian Welch sings, "I have no mother, no father/No sister, no brother/I am an orphan girl."
In Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian's case, those are autobiographical lines. Born in Ireland, she was (presumably) the sole survivor of an immigrant family destroyed by drink, insanity, and a tragic fire. In 1929, nine-year-old Niamh finds herself on a train to Minnesota charged by her social worker guardians with caring for an infant. They were two of numerous youngsters aboard an "orphan train" headed for the Midwest to find new families. Will they find security and love or, as wisecracking "Dutchy" warns, are they just free labor for farmers?
This is a work of fiction, but orphan trains were real. They were the brainchild of Charles Loring Brace, a pioneer in foster care, but a field still in its (wordplay intended) infancy during the years 1853 and 1929, when a quarter of a million children–foundlings, orphans, "street Arabs," and homeless–left New York City for new lives. The Children's Aid Society (and several Catholic charities) placed them. Host families were told the children had to receive board and an education, but there was little effort to determine the suitability of the placement and even less given to follow-up inspections. From the children's perspective, adoption was a crapshoot in which some got very lucky and others endured Dickensian horrors. Until quite recently, little has been written about orphan train children, often because they–like the fictional Vivian–chose to confine their ghosts to the attic.
Vivian's ghosts are about to be stirred by Molly Ayers, a half-Penobscot 17-year-old ward of the Maine courts who has been in and out of over a dozen foster families in her young life–nearly all of them wildly inappropriate. She is outwardly Goth, but that's as much turtle's shell as essence. She's wicked smart, but so jaded that she's the kind of kid who exchanges her virginity for a tattoo and hides her emotions behind a poker face and a tangle of misshapen hair. She's living on Mt. Dessert Island with Ralph and Dina Byrnes, he a classic milquetoast and she a raving evangelical bitch. With just nine months to go before she's free, Molly screws up by trying to lift a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre (her favorite book) from the town library. All that stands between she and "juvie" is a new boyfriend, Jack, who believes in her, and successful conclusion of 50 hours of community service. Jack withholds vital details from his mother, Vivian's daytime aide, so that Molly can do her time helping Vivian Daly clean out her attic.
You can probably see where this is headed–young orphan bonds with old orphan. The story arc is predictable, but how we get there is akin to opening Vivian's boxes. As it transpires, Vivian doesn't want to throw things away; she wants to stir the old ghosts and remember. Lids come off literally and metaphorically, the device Baker uses to dump out the details of the two orphans' lives. Both lives were filled with sorrows and injustices that made any sort of normal childhood impossible, but also moments of humor, joy, and clarity. You won't come away feeling good about the childcare industry, but you will love both Vivian and Molly.
|Find out the significance of Vivian's claddagh pin.|
To be sure, there are flaws in Baker's novel–including her need to tie together loose ends too neatly. Her major characters undergo personality changes with the speed of a jailhouse religious conversion, and Baker sometimes slathers us with both pathos and orphan inferences. (Guess what Vivian's favorite book is–Anne of Green Gables!) Vivian generally seems more 51 than 91. Do we, for instance, believe that an elder who has never touched a computer will impulsively buy a laptop and effortlessly solve 60-year-old mysteries? Never mind–Orphan Train will haunt you and you'll soon forget its literary strays. --Rob Weir