Orphan Train

I had a personal connection to this novel because my mom was raised as an orphan in Chicago. Luckily, she never had to experience adoptions or sharing foster homes with unloving parents but she did start out on her own at age sixteen working as a salesgirl in the Chicago Loop.

This touching intertwined story of two orphans: one contemporary and one from depression era days, was a quick and touching read. It begins with Goth-looking Molly, a young, half-Native America girl from Maine who just got busted for stealing a book from the public library.  Really? Well not every detail in a novel has to be 100% authentic.   

In case you’re curious, Molly took the third and the most beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre.

Instead of going to Juvie Hall, she agrees to do 50 hours of community service, and her kind and ever forbearing boyfriend, Jack, sets her up with 91-year-old Vivian, a woman who needs help going through boxes and boxes of her things.

Molly’s current foster parents treat her pretty well. At least Ralph does, his wife, Dina, is meaner and in it just for the money. Unfortunately, Molly has had a string of bad foster homes that have left her angry and forced her to keep changing schools and locations. At 17, she’s at the end of her rope, and finally has found in this seaside town, Spruce Harbor, Maine, a place she wants to stay.  But that requires biting her tongue, and not complaining when her foster mom serves her meat when she is vegetarian.

Molly’s father died and her mother’s heavy into drugs so she is not a true orphan, but Vivian as Molly soon discovers, was not a true orphan either. When young, Vivian’s entire family except for her mother, Vivian believes, was killed in a house fire, but her mother had mental problems, so she disappeared into an asylum.

Because New York City was teeming with orphans living on the street in the days of the depression, some church people organized a series of trains to bring these homeless children to the Midwest where farmers and small town people could adopt them.  Many of these adoptions were utilitarian—farmers need free farmhands, poor woman with big families need older girls to care for their other children. In this novel, we see both things happening.

Molly leaves New York City at 8 years old with just one suitcase, and a piece of her Irish gram’s jewelry around her neck. On the train, she’s given a baby to care for, and a somewhat wild youth, Dutchy, is forced to sit beside her. The three of them make their own little support network on their trip West.

In Minnesota--Vivian then called Niamh--is adopted by a woman who wants a free seamstress for her business. When times get worse, and people stop buying clothes, she gives Niamh, now Dorothy back to the Children’s Aid Society. A poor rural family next adopts her. They have no running water and Dorothy learns to cook squirrel stew and live with dirt and lice.

Finally, Dorothy/Vivian gets a better chance, and things improve for her. And in Maine, sharing all Vivian’s stories, Molly is learning a lot about her own life, her own past, and her own future possibilities. It’s rare in a book for an intergenerational friendship to develop but in this book one deeply fulfilling one does. The novel is full of fascinating history but as contemporary as now. Not to be missed.

If real orphan trains intrigue you, try out Renee Wendinger's Extra! Extra! : The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York.