Orphan Train a Glorious Ride

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


Julie Otsuka's Poetic Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka
Anchor (144 p.) 978-0307744425
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This recent winner of a Pen/Faulkner prize is poetic point-of-view saga of Japanese ‘picture brides,’ young women arranged to be married to Japanese men who immigrated to San Francisco. As the term suggests, all they knew of their future husbands was what could be inferred from their photos and, in some cases, letters sent by the affianced. Otsuka follows these women from their stormy passage across the Pacific to their new lives, new families, new roles, and new social standings in America.

A shipboard line sums up much of what the women encounter: “This is America, we would say to ourselves. There is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” The first shock was the discovery that the men in the pictures were often not as handsome or young in real life, or that the content of the letters was filled with exaggerations and falsehoods. Their new American "home” might consist of a chicken coop, a barn, a box car, or a room behind a shop; if one was lucky, perhaps a humble house.

Otsuka‘s story of immigrants coping to adjust and assimilate is now a familiar one; we’ve long known that the melting pot was ideal and myth, not reality. But Otsuka also makes us see, through women’s eyes, the manner in which gender, culture, and race complicated immigrant dreams. Very few names appear in Otsuka’s novel and it's almost entirely written in the first-person plural. “We” is used to make the reader see experience from women’s points of view and to infer both the variety of those experiences and their underlying similarity. Patriarchy, domesticity, and hard work for instance, were givens. In a short, but powerful chapter titled “First Night,” Otsuka captures the initial encounter with sex with a pointed and poignant sentence: “They took us quickly.”

Each of Otsuka’s chapter headings signal the life experience contained therein—“Babies,” the variety of circumstances in which women gave birth; “Whites” the encounter between East and West. Most of the women were strangers in a strange land whose only link between Japan and the United States were husbands—also strangers (in both senses). As the women gained some facility with English and, in some cases, acquired white neighbors, they learned exactly how ‘foreign’ they were perceived to be. Many felt the despair social and cultural disconnectuin. As Otsuka puts it, “We forgot abut Buddha. We forgot about God….” Many encountered overt racism, but all learned to be suspicious even when they encountered smiles and outward friendliness. That would prove wise. Otsuka’s action covers the decades up to and including World War II, when West Coast Japanese and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Otsuka titles these chapters “Traitors” and “A Disappearance.”

This is a short book, a wise decision given that the (nearly exclusive) use of the first-person plural means we are drawn into a collective worldview in which there are few individual stories to follow for more than a few sentences. Otsuka’s prose is at once eloquent and spare, a style that elides detail to all that we need to comprehend, but which also threatens to grow tiresome. Sometimes it's as if we are reading a chronicle with commentary. But even when the points are belabored, one must give high marks to Otsuka for her bold approach, the clarity with which she shows cultural differences, and—above all—for putting us behind the eyes of often nameless women. She forces us to think of the things one takes on a journey and what one is forced to leave behind. More poignantly still, what would you, the reader, take and leave behind if you knew your journey was a one-way passage to a land utterly unlike your own?
 --Rob Weir


NRA's New Plan in Light of Isla Vista Murders

In a statement that surprised even some ardent defenders of the Second Amendment, National Rifle Association spokesman Trigg R. Happy seized upon the May 23 Isla Vista, California murders to issue a wake-up call to gun owners. "I'm sick of all the liberal namby-pambies calling for gun control," said Happy. "Hell's bells, three of them seven people what died in California was stabbed. That's unacceptable." Happy went on to call gunman Eliot Rodger a "weenie" for stabbing three of the victims. According to Happy, "A real man woulda used a big f'in' gun. I think Rodger killed hisself with a gun outta shame for not shootin' the other three."

Happy also called upon NRA members to "pick up the pace." He cited statistics that showed that in the past three decades "only 335,609 'Muricans has been murdered by guns. Dammmit, that's only the population of St. Louis, Nebraska," said Happy, who mislocated Missouri's largest city. He also expressed outrage that there have been only 70 mass shootings since 2000. "They's more n' 19,000 cities, towns, n' villages in this here nation and just a few of 'em have had mass shootins.' What's wrong with NRA members? I think they's been pussywhipped by lib'rals and feminazis. Well I'm here to say, 'Wake up people. Commence a-shootin be4 them comminis' Obama-lovin' lib'rals takes away yer guns.' Ev'ry town in Murica needs a good killin' or two to make foolish non-gun owners realize if they ain't packin,' they ain't breathin'."

Happy was immediately invited to appear on Fox News' Sean Insanity's show to promote his views on "true Americanism." To represent the position of kneejerk liberals, the Insanity Show has also invited Sunshine Getalong of the Peace, Rainbows, and Cuddly Puppies Coalition to make a plea that we all hug and seek to understand each other.

In other news, Fairness in Media issued an independent report. According to Cameron Greenroom, a lowly intern with FIM, "Our report shows that there is some validity in the NRA's allegation. Each day about 38 Americans die from gunshot wounds. But people forget that there are 314,000,000 people in this country. That means that every day 313,999,962 people are not murdered by guns." NRA President Bob "Dead Eye" Wuntooth responded to the FIM statement by remarking, "That's what I'm talkin' about Them numbers is way to [sic] low. We kin do better as a nation."

But are there holes in the NRA ranks? Not all gun owners agree with the NRA's position. "I've been huntin' for 50 years," said former Vice President Dick Cheney, "and I've shot just the one person." A survey of imprisoned U.S. gun murderers indicated that 73% of them were "satisfied" with their output, and had "little or no desire" to shoot anyone else. In a chilling side note, though, former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez said he "wouldn't mind putting a few more in the [rifle] sites."