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.
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.
5 Most Popular Books of the Month: April, 2017
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