The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline Book Review

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a historical fiction novel that moves between 2011 Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, exploring the trauma experienced by orphans in those days and how unlikely people can share deep connections.

There was once a time between 1854 to 1929 when children who were orphans or given over to the state to take care of were put on trains that travelled from the big cities of the US east coast to midwestern towns to place children with any family willing to take them. From people looking to adopt out of love to people looking for an extra pair of hands to help on the homestead, the children’s lives were in the hands of fate, no one would check the placement or do any follow-ups.

Vivian Daly is a young Irish immigrant who is left alone after her family dies as a result of a fire that took place in the slum apartment they lived in. Without any family in America, she is sent off to the orphanage where she is put on the orphan train along with other children.

In 2011 Maine, seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer is sentenced to community service helping an elderly woman clean out her home. To stay out of juvenile hall Molly’s task of sorting through the physical remnants of Vivian’s life she discovers that despite their ages and Vivian’s wealth, they share many of the same childhood and fostering traumas which makes Vivian one of the only people to really understand Molly.

The book was beautifully written and fascinating, but many of the things that Vivian goes through are gut-wrenching. If you are fascinated by recent history and enjoy books that explore hardship and relationships then this book is one to reach for.

There is also an abridged version of this book available for children which I think would be great for giving them insight into living as an orphan during this time, without the more adult themes.

Trigger warnings:

  • Domestic abuse
  • Child rape




Excerpt from The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Three days after the fire, Mr. Schatzman wakes me from sleep to tell me that he and Mrs. Schatzman have figured out a perfect solution (yes, he says “perfect,” parr-fec, in his German accent; I learn, in this instant, the terrible power of superlatives).

They will take me to the Children’s Aid Society, a place staffed by friendly social workers who keep the children in their care warm and dry and fed.

“I can’t go,” I say. “My mother will need me when she gets out of the hospital.” I know that my father and brothers are dead. I saw them in the hallway, covered with sheets. But Mam was taken away on a stretcher, and I saw Maisie moving, whimpering, as a man in a uniform carried her down the hall.

He shakes his head.

“She won’t be coming back.”

“But Maisie, then—”

“Your sister, Margaret, didn’t make it,” he says, turning away.

My mother and father, two brothers, and a sister as dear to me as my own self—there is no language for my loss. And even if I find words to describe what I feel, there is no one to tell. Everyone I am attached to in the world—this new world—is dead or gone.

The night of the fire, the night they took me in, I could hear Mrs. Schatzman in her bedroom, fretting with her husband about what to do with me. “I didn’t ask for this,” she hissed, the words as distinct to my ears as if she’d been in the same room. “Those Irish! Too many children in too small a space. The only surprise is that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more.”