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Orphan Train Wreck

Orphan Train - Christina Baker Kline

The book I just read was terrible. It’s so bad, I thought that I might be the victim a literary candid camera type gag, where I would get to the last page and read “HA HA HA… you just read the fake parody version of Orphan Train.” Everything about this book was bad. Each and every character was straight out of central casting. The plot was predictable, rushed and overcrowded with stuff. If you saw any of my updates, you will know that the writing was gratuitously descriptive and melodramatic. The symbolism was embarrassingly obvious.

This book got off to a bad start with me. Shortly after an odd prologue about an unnamed character believing in ghosts, we meet Molly, a troubled Goth teen in the foster care system. Molly is a tough, demi-orphan

she actually has a drunken father around somewhere

(show spoiler)

, but she loves to read. Molly is in BIG TROUBLE!!!! She is on the hook to do 50 community service hours, but since she is untrustworthy no one will take her. And if she can’t do the service hours, she is heading back to juvie. Poor Molly is in a pickle. BTW, you might wonder what Molly did to get into such trouble. Maybe shoplifting, stealing cars, aggravated assault? Nope, Molly stole a tattered copy of Jane Eyre from the public library. Did I mention the symbolism was written at the third grade level?

Thanks to Molly’s perfect boyfriend, she snags a community service gig helping an elderly woman clean out her attic

because you can’t die and leave a mess

(show spoiler)

. This is where we meet Vivian Daly, the attic lady. Guess what, Vivian just happens to be a demi-orphan too, imagine that! So we start to learn about Vivian’s childhood and her experiences on the Orphan Train. Ironically, very little of her story actually takes place on the train. 

The use of archetypal characters was tiring at best and often offensive. There were drunken absent fathers, evil foster mothers, bumbling husbands, immigrant hating Midwesterners, and magical savior teachers. Molly’s foster mother was painted as a meat-loving right wing-nut who wants to get rid of her. Which reminds me, I noticed that the author couldn’t seem help from adding superfluous layers to Molly’s character. For instance, when Molly is sent to clean Vivan’s attic, Molly confesses to being a neat freak. Molly also happens to be a vegetarian, something that didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to add conflict between her and her foster mother.

I haven’t mentioned much about Vivian’s side of the story. It’s the historical part, taking place from 1929-1943 and follows Niamh (pronounced Neev) as she goes from Irish immigrant to orphan to foster child in a series of unfortunate placements. Niamh becomes Dorothy, because Americans hate foreign sounding names. She has a Dickensian experience which includes working in a sweat shop, caring for small children and eating squirrel stew. While Niamh’s story is written in present tense, from her child’s point of view, it was reads like an over acted soap-opera. As an example:

"Stripped of family and identity, fed meager rations, consigned to hard wooden seats until we are to be, as Slobbery Jack suggested, sold into slavery—our mere existence is punishment enough."

Said no nine year old ever.