Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline: Book Review

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Cover of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

4 Stars

Molly Ayer has messed up one too many times. She’s caught up in the foster system and her latest mistake has left her with a choice of either fifty hours of community service or going to juvie. Her boyfriend searches around and finds out that his mom’s employer, 91-year-old widow Vivian Daly, needs help cleaning out her attic. Everyone agrees that this can be counted as community service so Molly heads over to the old woman’s house. She initially sees it as a chore but she’s pleasantly surprised when she realizes how much she and Mrs. Daly have in common.

In New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Niamh Power is left an orphan when her recently-immigrated family is killed in an apartment fire. She lives in an orphanage for a few months but then the Children’s Aid Society sends her out to the Midwest on an “orphan train.” Chaperones would take scores of kids around to different venues and basically give them to whomever wanted them. No one knew which would be worse–not to be chosen at all or to go to a bad family. Either way, the entire process was humiliating and nerve-wracking.

This was such a good book. I hadn’t ever heard of the orphan trains, but they were a reality in American history from about 1850 to 1930. Apparently over 200,000 children were relocated in this way. Can you imagine? With all the red tape today? Just show up at the train station and pick yourself out a healthy-looking boy to help Pa out around the farm. Of course you’ll promise to send him to school but who’s going to check up on that? Nobody. And who’s going to make sure that you’re feeding him enough? Again, nobody. And if Pa occasionally gets a little too rough with the discipline, well, it’s not like he’s family or anything. Maybe it was better than slowly starving to death on the streets of New York, but it was a deeply, deeply flawed process. Holy cow.

In a dual narrative like this, I think every reader will enjoy one story more than the other and that was true for me here. I couldn’t wait to get back to Niamh’s story. There was nothing wrong with Molly’s present-day story but the draw for me was the history. I related a little more to Niamh too. She’s a good girl who tries her best to blend in and do as she’s told while Molly, outwardly at least, is more of a rebel. I’m always going to understand the Niamh personality more than the Molly personality, at least in general and up to a point.

I hope this is okay to share…

I read this with my book club. One of my friends couldn’t wait to talk about her reactions to the book. She’s been through the foster system herself and she was blown away by how spot-on the whole book was. From the insecurity to learning to work the system in your own favor, she said every word was accurate. I’ve never been through anything like this (Thank heaven for a loving, supportive family) but I would guess that the rest of us liked it because it rang true. I’m going to get into the dangerous world of stereotypes here and say that most readers are an empathetic bunch so we’re going to notice if something just doesn’t feel right, whether it’s a situation we’ve ever personally experienced or not. This one felt right.

The book was not without its flaws but they are easily overlooked. There’s at least one huge coincidence that left me rolling my eyes. Events occurred that I just knew were setting up a future conflict that never happened. The ending was a little too tidy and it was definitely abrupt. Our whole book club agreed on that.

Read this for a look at a little-known piece of American history, to feel a little more thankful for your family if you’re fortunate like me, or to feel a little less alone if you’ve been through situations like this. It was a fast read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Read an excerpt.

Find author Christina Baker Kline on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Buy Orphan Train at

Watch the haunting book trailer:

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site. My opinions are completely my own.

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  1. This book is definitely on my to-read list! It does sound like it would prompt a lot of good conversation for a book club. Thanks for linking to the Immigrant Stories Challenge – I will be hosting again this year and hope you consider joining!

  2. I've been wanting to read this one for a while. This isn't a topic I've read about very much, and I haven't read anything relating to the orphan trains.

  3. Wow, this sounds like a great book!! I did not know about the orphan trains either (but am not American) but it sounds like an impressive read. I put it on my TBR list!

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