Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Jesus famously said "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7).  Two thousand years later, this statement remains a sad truth about the state of the world we live in.  Poverty is a blight on human civilization, rendering huge swaths of the population unable to do more than work tirelessly for subsistence level existence.  The causes of poverty are many and varied, and fighting poverty is made that much more difficult by the attitudes that people have about the poor.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are many people around the world who choose a "blame the victim" mentality when thinking about those who live in poverty. They are lazy, or dissolute, or ignorant.  Obviously they must be making bad choices, or they feel a sense of entitlement to government assistance that keeps them from "working hard", "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps", or "climbing the ladder" of economic success.

While some of these prejudices are stated openly by people who seem to have a dearth of compassion towards their fellow human beings, they are more insidious than that.  Often, well intentioned people who believe it is their "Christian" duty to serve the needs of the poor reinforce these stereotypes in the way that they structure their social action around poverty.  Throughout the history of the United States, there are a multitude of examples of churches, governments, or social service organizations who espoused a particular policy to fight poverty that actually caused more harm than good.  "Indian schools", where Native American children were sent after being (forcibly) removed from their families to be re-educated in the "Christian" way are one example.  Another is the subject of the book Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.  For a period of about 70 years, trains full of orphaned and abandoned children were sent to the middle of the country, where farmers, factory owners, shopkeepers, and yes, some loving families were able to adopt them by signing a piece of paper on a train platform.  The stated goal was to provide for these children, the products of the teeming, filthy streets of cities in the northeast, a fresh start in a wholesome environment where they could learn the values of hard work and clean living that so obviously escaped their vile, low, lazy parents (please read sarcasm into that last sentence).

Orphan Train is the story of two women-Molly, a Penobscot Indian teenager in the foster care system in present day Maine, and Vivian, a 91 year old woman with an unexpected past.  When Molly volunteers to help Vivian clean out the attic of her large seaside home, she discovers that she and Vivian share a history of being judged by people who do not understand who they are, and of being shunted around from place to place, never really feeling secure.  Vivian was one of the children sent west on the Orphan Train, an Irish girl with red hair and freckles.  The Irish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America were looked down upon much like many immigrants of Mexican descent are today (like poverty, this tendency to revile newly arrived immigrants who are coming to "take our jobs and ruin our towns" is always with us).  Her father was an alcoholic who gambles away much of the family's money, and her mother has what would today be diagnosed as clinical depression.  When most of her family is killed in a fire, she is sent from New York City on a train to Minnesota.  Too old to be easily adopted, and her obviously Irish features and name (Niamh), she is not taken into the arms of a loving, Midwestern family, but sent to what is essentially a sweatshop.  The story follows Niamh, who will change her name several times in the course of the novel, through the 20th century and the many times she had to move from place to place, never really feeling as though she belonged anywhere.

The book highlights an important period of American history, and the story is very moving.  What makes it more than just a well-written historical fiction novel is the relationship between Molly and Vivian.  These two women, who have felt alone and misunderstood for much of their lives, find kindred spirits in each other. In Vivian, Molly finds a model of what it can look like when someone decided not to let their past or the prejudices of others define them, and Vivian discovers that family connections can survive despite tragedy, separation, and the passing of nearly a century of time.

4 comments:

  1. THis book has been on my shortlist for some time now to read. I didn't realize until reading your review, however, that it intertwines two different narratives. It sounds really good.

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  2. It looks like this book is going to be my book club's selection for July. Thanks for the great review. I wonder, though, is it a very depressing book or more uplifting? I'm hoping for something not too dark and dreary since it will be a summer read.

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  3. No, I didn't find it depressing. If anything, it ultimately shows the strength of the human spirit, and our ability to persevere even during really dark times. There are moments that are sad or infuriating or frustrating, but in the end I didn't find it depressing at all.

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