Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline

December 2, 2013 Coming of Age, Historical Fiction 41

Hey Bookworms,

I hope you’ve all slept off your tryptophan stupors and that you had the Happiest of Thanksgivings in the process. I must admit, I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done this weekend. There was so much decking of the halls to be done! Luckily, I did manage to finish a book, so why don’t we talk about it?

orphantrainThis weekend I finished reading Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. History Lesson! Did you know that from the 1850s to the 1930s in the good old US of A, orphaned, homeless, and abandoned children from the East Coast were transported to the Midwest via train in hopes they’d be taken in? If you had the bad luck to lose your family to dysentery or whatever while living as a minor in NYC? They’d snap you up and ship you off to places where kids and/or farmhands were in short supply. (Now I LOVE the Midwest. It’s home to me. But to an Irish immigrant kid by way of New York City? Culture shock, much?)

This book employs a dual narrative, which I rather enjoy as a matter of course. One half of the narrative is told from Molly’s point of view. Molly’s story comes to us from the modern day. She’s been in foster care for a good chunk of her childhood, and she hasn’t had the easiest time of it. One day she gets caught trying to steal the rattiest copy of Jane Eyre from the library and is sentenced to 50 hours of community service. C’mon, TOWN! Foster girl just wanted to get her classics on! Why you gotta be so mean?!

Thanks to Molly’s boyfriend’s mom’s employer (got that?!), Molly gets hooked up with a way to kill off some of those hours by working for Vivian, a nonagenarian with a really cluttered attic. As the the attic project commences, Vivian begins telling Molly about her youth aboard the Orphan Train.

The foster care system can suck pretty hard. There are a great many foster caregivers every trying to do their best by children in need, but it’s certainly not an easy road. If it weren’t enough that the kids had to deal with a screwed up childhood without their parents for whatever reason, there are occasionally a few rotten apples who choose to be foster parents not out of caring, but out of a desire for the monthly stipend. As crappy as all that is, at least these days kids get to keep their names. Yeah, guys. Names. You get stuck on an Orphan Train back in the day and you’ve got an ethnic sounding name? Fuggedaboudit. Vivian’s name was Niamh (which is super Irish and pronounced “Neev.”) Then it was changed to Dorothy. Then Vivian. I mean, the girl was old enough to know her doggone name! Like it’s not traumatic enough to be virtually auctioned off like chattel, you get to lose the last shred of your identity while you’re at it. That’s some bull crap right there, history.

There was one part of the story that bothered me, but to go into specifics I’d have to get spoiler-y. If you’ve read it, you can probably guess what I’m talking about. It has to do with the second Margaret… And ?!?!?!?!?!?! All in all though, I really liked this book. It was a fast read and it hit all the historical high notes I adore in a novel. I can see this book appealing to fans of historical fiction and those who are interested in the plights of society’s underdogs. If you have any interest at all, I highly recommend this book.

Alright, Bookworms. Let’s talk about names for a second. Most of us have no say in choosing our names (unless you change yours for some reason, which is expensive and time consuming) but they have a huge impact on our identities. Do you ever feel like you were given the “wrong” name, or do you feel like it’s become an important part of who you are? 

If you’re interested in getting a holiday card and *Certified Awesome* Words for Worms bookmark from me, there’s still loads of time! Send an email to wordsforworms@gmail.com with your address and I’ll put one in the mail. The first batch is going out this week! 🙂

Oh yeah, if you buy a copy of a book linked through this page, I will receive an itty bitty commission, which will be reinvested into my book buying habit. 

41 Responses to “Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline”

  1. Megan M.

    I’m intrigued by the premise of this book! So unfair that she couldn’t keep her Irish name, but that’s the catch-22 with Irish/Scottish names – they’re GORGEOUS, but their pronunciations are incomprehensible. But if you try to “normalize” the spelling, then they just look odd.

    I think I was perfectly named. I am SUCH a Megan. I went through a phase where I tried to get people to call me by my middle name (Lori) but it lasted about 30 minutes. LOL What’s really fun is looking up your name in the Urban Dictionary. Really. The results are hilarious.

    • Words For Worms

      That’s so true, Gaelic spellings are so anti-phonetic. I just Urban Dictionaried Katie: “A happy person who is a good listener and reliable friend. Likes to party and is always there when you need her.” While this is flattering, I struggle with the happy (thanks Brain Chemicals!) and I really don’t like to party… Anymore. I’m old. I like pajamas.

  2. Jennifer

    While I did change my name when I got married, I don’t think that’s what you had in mind :). While Jennifer was the most popular name the year I was born, I can’t imagine being called anything else.

    • Words For Worms

      Oh I totally changed my last name because my maiden name was hard to spell and if I’d hyphenated, my initials would have been hideously offensive. But yeah, Katie is a common name too, and it’s so ME. I can’t imagine someone just showing up when I was 9 and telling me my name was going to be Delores from now on.

  3. Jennine G.

    I JUST pulled this off my shelf! No kidding. I ot it on a book swap site last time I read a blog review of it. Get this, the person sent me a signed copy! Crazy people, but yay for me. So when I was adding We Are Water to the pile of signed copies I saw it JD pulled it out to read in the next month or so! Your review makes it sound even better than I remember hearing the first time.

    The only thing about my name is the spelling. It’s usually spelled Janeen or Jeanine and somehow, missing that “a”, no one can figure out how to pronounce it. But how I got it is pretty cool, so I guess I can’t complain. My parents had never heard the name and didn’t know I was a girl. One day my mom came home with the name written down, having met a girl with it. Before she could show it to my dad, he showed her a name he had heard on a commercial. He didn’t know how it was spelled so he just wrote it down how he thought. It was the same name AND spelling as the one my mom wrote down. Weird, huh? And that was the only time he ever saw that commercial too.

  4. Ciska @ Ciska's Book Chest

    I read a few books on this subject but the whole concept still amazes me. This looks like an interesting read too.

    The whole name change thing and first names is funny. I am very sensitive to fit people with their names and I got two co-workers who started on the same day at the company and I always mix up their names because I feel they fit better the other way around. I am totally aware of this and always take great care getting it right but the first flash thought always gives me the wrong name.

    • Jennine G.

      Ciska, I have to students to whom I do the same thing! I think their names would fit the other better. They are in the same class and I even though I know my I mix them up and am careful, I still do it! Talk about the power of first impressions.

      • Words For Worms

        My husband’s grandmother used to call me Amy. I’m not sure if she’d just misheard my name or thought it ought to be Amy, but I got tired of correcting her and just let it go. At least Amy sounds a little bit like Katie, in the long A and E sounds. I got Jamie once too, but that was a case of mistaken identity.

    • Words For Worms

      Oh that’s so crazy! I’ve met people whose names just don’t quite fit and I always want to call them something else. Isn’t it weird when that happens? I wonder if THEY think their names fit them…

  5. Renee Garrison

    My book club just finished reading, “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty, which also deals with the trials and tribulations of the orphan trains…might be a good follow-up read.

    • Words For Worms

      I am SO EXCITED to hear this! I was planning on reading The Chaperone in January (Leah at Books Speak Volumes is doing a Jazz Age event.) I’m even more stoked to read this now that I know the stories dovetail. Oh universe, you are one sneaky entity.

  6. kristinshafel

    I got this as an ebook on my iPad a while back, when it was on sale… looking forward to reading it (soon??) I admit I haven’t been the most awesomeist with the ebooks I’ve downloaded :-/

    I love my name! I think Kristin fits me well, and I’m lucky to have two great last names, too (my maiden name and married name). I love the history with my maiden name, and other surnames in my families’ pasts. One decided to give a different name at Ellis Island when they came over due to known Irish persecution in New York City, one got “Americanized,” etc.

    • Words For Worms

      It’s so cool that you know some of the history behind your names! My mom does our family genealogy as a hobby and she hits a brick wall as soon as our immigrant ancestors get off the boat. Probably doesn’t help anything that our family is mostly German and we don’t speak German… Hard to read old documents in a foreign language!

  7. Andi (@estellasrevenge)

    I could’ve sworn I commented here at 2am in a fit of insomnia. But obviously not! I really liked this book, though I ALWAYS like the historical character better. What a life Neev had. Wow! Glad you enjoyed this one, too. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up without my book club.

    • Words For Worms

      I hate when my comments disappear (or when I’m SURE I’ve commented but I haven’t.) I usually like the historical characters better too, but I enjoy the back and forth. Feels like time travel.

  8. Emma White

    This is not usual type of book, but the title and cover got me feeling sorry for a character I have not yet been introduced to. I think I will check this book out sometime, nice review.

  9. Jenny @ Reading the End

    Oo, the name thing is interesting! I always think it’s interesting (and sad!) when names get changed for silly reasons. I was nearly named Elizabeth, and I think it could have been a pretty good name for me. (By contrast, my sister was nearly named Babette. I can’t envision her as a Babette.)

    • Words For Worms

      I know! There are so many stories of surnames being changed at Ellis Island, but your first name? That’s just so… jarring. Although, I almost wish your sister had been named Babette, because that is a really fun name. Okay. I only think it’s fun because of Sally Struthers’ character on Gilmore Girls… I’m so transparent.

  10. Monika

    I’ve always liked my name, not my middle name so much, but definitely my first name (and its spelling!).

    This book sounds so good, I remember reading other positive reviews throughout the year. Enjoyed your review!

  11. Isi

    I’m looking forward to reading this novel (I think I will do it soon, hehe).
    I haven’t thought of the question about the names, but yes, I think that they somehow describe ourselves.
    ohhh I’m writing you that email 😉

  12. Allison @ The Book Wheel

    I had heard about orphan trains before I read this book but not in the detail that I learned from it. As for names, I spent most of 4th and 5th grade changing the spelling of my name (Alison, Alyson, Allyson) and spent some time wanting to be a Nicole, for some reason. But now, I love my name 🙂

    • Words For Worms

      Haaa! This cracks me up! I toyed with the idea of the various spellings of Katie. It’s always bothered me that my mom chose to spell Kathyrn with a Y and Katie with an IE.

  13. Emily

    This book is on my TBR list and I can’t wait to read it but it may have just jumped a few spots after this review. Thanks!

    As far as names go, I hated my middle name (Knap) for a very long time when I was younger. This may have had something to do with the fact that my best friend’s obnoxious brother constantly told me to go take a nap but nonetheless, I hated it. At some point though, I started to be proud of the fact that it was unique and my grandmother’s maiden name and I got attached to it. I recently got married and dropped my middle name to keep my maiden name and believe it or not, now I miss it! Ah, the power of a name!

    • Words For Worms

      I love when maiden names can be used this way! I have a friend who gave her child her maiden name as a first name, which I thought was really sweet. (It’s a name that’s completely acceptable as a first name.) I like the idea that my theoretical children could use Kelly for their kiddos!

    • Words For Worms

      I only learned about Orphan Trains shortly before picking up this book. Just when you think you know history, something jumps up to bite you! I will never know all the things. Sigh.

  14. Leah @ Books Speak Volumes

    I had no idea that orphan trains were a thing until I started seeing reviews of this book. How terrible! It sounds like a really interesting book, though.

    I’ve grown to like my name. It’s just annoying that people frequently mispronounce it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called Lee. The -ah at the end isn’t silent, folks!

  15. Melinda

    I’ve been saying I want to read this book forever (and I will)! The name thing is sad. Although I would have loved to change my name as a child, it does kind of suck to loose your “identity” that way when you’ve already lost so much. I need to read this book!

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