Orphan Train tells two stories set in two time lines. In 1929, we have nine year old Irish immigrant Niamh whose parents and siblings die in a horrific accident; in present day, we have seventeen year old foster child, Molly, who has struggled to fit in with her recent set of foster parents.
Niamh is put on a train by the Children’s Aid Society and sent across the United States to find a family to adopt her. Unfortunately, the adoptions are handled more like cattle auctions and the rescued children most likely enter an indentured servitude-like existence. Niahm is renamed Dorothy by the Byrnes who don’t send her to school (as promised) but keep her around to assist in their dressmaking business. When the stock market crashes the Byrnes let their employees go and eventually return Dorothy to the Children’s Aid where she is placed in a new home. This family allows her an education but she is forced to live in squalor like conditions, in an overcrowded house forced to eat things like squirrel stew. When the father attempts to molest Dorothy she takes refuge with her school teacher where her life begins again in more pleasant circumstances.
“I learned long ago that loss is not only probable but inevitable. I know what it means to lose everything, to let go of one life and find another. And now I feel, with a strange, deep certainty, that it must be my lot in life to be taught that lesson over and over again.”
After stealing a library book (is that a thing?), Molly is sentenced to 50 hours of community service. Molly’s boyfriend’s mother’s employer, an old woman named Vivian, allows Molly to clean out her attic for her service hours. During their time together Vivian opens up to Molly, the find out they share similar backgrounds and form an unlikely bond. Molly is a bit superfluous, a means to introduce Vivian and show that perhaps things aren’t all that different than they were 80 years ago.
Orphan Train‘s intersecting story lines are predictable but none the less interesting and page turning. It was such a strange time in history that somehow eluded my knowledge. I plan to seek out some of the non-fiction stories written about the children on the trains.