Orphan Train is the parallel story of two very different women: 17-year-old Molly, a victim of the foster care system in the present day, and 91-year-old Vivian, who has a hidden past as a rider of the so-called orphan trains of the 1920s. More than 200,000 children were collected from New York by Children’s Aid, herded onto trains and deposited in the Midwest. Ostensibly offered for adoption, these orphans were more often treated as servants and farm hands, with no supervision from Children’s Aid. Some children did find loving families, but others were physically and mentally abused, without being given a chance to attend school or improve their lives in any way. While it is easy to look back and criticize these aspects of Vivian’s story, it is Molly’s job to remind us that children are still falling through the cracks of the foster care system.
I picked this novel up just to read the back cover, and ended up devouring half of the book. I knew a little bit about the orphan trains from reading The Chaperone, and my interest in the historical aspects distracted me from the questionable writing. It wasn’t exactly bad, I just felt misled that this was classified as literary fiction instead of young adult. I still enjoyed reading it, but it seemed to be targeted to a much younger audience.
Part of the reason this seems like a young adult novel are the oversimplified characterizations of certain literary tropes: the evil foster mother, the hapless husband, the kind couple who takes in the poor orphan, the trusting old lady who rescues the delinquent teenager when no one else could. Not to mention that the community service plot device that brings Vivian and Molly together is completely contrived and really makes no sense. Who gets threatened with juvie for “stealing” a library book, then is able to complete her community service hours by cleaning out an attic that just happens to be filled with wonderful stories of the past?
The historical sections – Vivian’s story – are much more readable than the present. The history of the orphan trains is so rich with detail and emotion that it is hard not to get drawn in, and I wish Molly’s issues had been treated with the same care. Molly’s speaking voice was authentic, but overall her actions felt forced. It seemed like she only existed as a plot device to allow Vivian to tell her story.
The writing was not perfect, but the storyline was still compelling and evocative, although the ending was a little rushed – once again, I would have liked to read more about what Molly does next. I think the main problem was that the author was trying to make the symbolism between the two stories match up exactly, and it felt unnatural. It was as if she didn’t trust the reader to make the connection between Molly and Vivian, and that’s ultimately why this novel read as YA. However, the historical facts certainly make Orphan Train worth the read.