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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Sister, Poppy Adams

Poppy Adams' book The Sister is an odd little novel.  It follows the story of one family from the English countryside-the husband, and entomologist who studies moths; his lonely, alcoholic wife; and their two daughters, Ginny and Vivian.  The novel opens with an elderly Ginny waiting for her younger sister Vivi to return to their enormous country estate for the first time in 50 years.  Ginny, who has become a recluse, is at once excited to see her beloved sister, and anxious about the effect her presence will have on the quietly ordered life she has created for herself.  Through Ginny's flashbacks we learn the troubled history of her family, and the series of events that led Vivi to leave the house, not to return for five decades.

Adams does a great job setting the mood for the novel with her descriptions of the decrepit estate where Ginny now lives.  Once a beautiful, vibrant country house, over time the furniture has been sold off, the grounds allowed to go to seed, and an air of decay lies over everything that is left.  This unsettling mood persists, despite the fact that at first, the story itself seems fairly benign.  However, as Ginny takes her walk down memory lane, it becomes clear that there is something not quite right, both with her and with the things that happened in her family.  Ginny doesn't seem to feel emotion that same way that other people do, and she has trouble reading other people's emotions and social cues.  I suppose if her childhood had been set in the present day rather than the 1950s, we might have said that she has Aspergers Syndrome, but if there was a name back then for her quirks Adams never reveals it.  As the story unfolds, the reader begins to question whether they can trust Ginny's recollection of events, tinged as it is with her own inability to analyze other people's motives and feelings.

This novel ends in such an unexpected way that I actually went back and read the last 20 pages or so again to see if I had missed something that would explain the ending, and to be honest it does feel like there were a few gaps in the story that caused the reader to have to make a few leaps in order to get to where Adams eventually took us.  But if you are looking for a moody, slightly chilling read, then I think that you will enjoy this debut novel.