Orphan Train

Monday, February 23, 2015

Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline

Molly is a teenager caught in the foster care system. She’s currently with a family, but their strict rules and refusal to accept her for who she is makes life difficult. After a few bad choices she gets a position helping an elderly woman clean out her attic. As she learns more about Vivian and her past she uncovers her incredible story. She was a young Irish immigrant sent out west on an orphan train to find a new family.  

This book quickly fell into the same category as Sarah's Key for me. Both books flip back-and-forth between the past and the present tracing two separate lives and intersecting where history meets with a current issue. My problem with both books was that I couldn't stand the current day narrator. In Sarah's Key it was a woman who couldn't stop whining about her French husband and her indecisiveness drove me nuts.  

In Orphan Train it’s Molly, a 17-year-old foster child who came across as obnoxious and self-righteous. I do think the audiobook narrator had something to do with it. She upped the irritation level by adding sarcastic tones to every comment, but it was the character herself that was so hard to stomach.

I loved the historical elements in the story. Learning about depression era New York and the real trains that took orphans out west was just fascinating. Unfortunately the present day narrator was insufferable and took me completely out of the story every time we returned to her. 

I do understand the structure of these novels. The author uses real pieces of history and a heartbreaking situation to allow the current day character to put their own situation in perspective. The problem is the modern-day character usually comes across as annoying just to make their realization of how good they have it a bit more powerful. Because of this I always end up feeling like I'd rather just read a book about that specific historical event (fiction or nonfiction) then have to flip back-and-forth in time.  

I had a hard time figuring out who this book’s target audience was. It felt a bit like YA, but then Molly would drop an unnecessary F bomb and I thought that might not be appropriate for that age group. I also felt like the author was trying too hard to make me identify with Molly and like her. “Oh gee, she stole Jane Eyre instead of lipstick; well we would be best friends if we met.” 

I also just have to say that I had a real problem with Vivian putting her baby up for adoption. After caring for her little sister and then the boy on the train, we know she was comfortable with babies. And then you think about the fact that she was bounced around to some truly awful foster homes and we are supposed to believe she would put her child in the same situation? I don’t think so. She had no idea who might adopt her and at that point she had the means and support (from her foster parents) to care for the child. I understand that she was grieving, but I don’t think anyone who went through that would willingly put their own child in the same position. 

BOTTOM LINE: The story has so much potential, but in execution it didn’t work for me. I wish this hadn’t jumped back and forth between the present and past. The modern day story was so much weaker and it took away from my overall enjoyment of the novel. I loved the historical side, but switching between the two just didn’t work.


Jillian said...

I rated this with 3 stars, and I totally get what you are saying. I liked it a bit more but agree that it was a bit "weak." The story itself has so much potential, but I agree that it wasn't really that powerfully executed.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jillian - I think that was my biggest frustration, there was just so much potential! It's such an incredible historical story.

Julie @ Smiling Shelves said...

I agree that the present-day storyline weakened the overall effect of the book. I think it would have been more powerful if it had just followed Vivian. And I'm totally with you on the adoption thing!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Julie - I usually feel that way about most historical fiction that switches back-and-forth. Usually it's the historical elements that are so fascinating.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I had very similar thoughts on this one--by the time I finished this one I swore off alternating storylines (we had read several in a row for book club). I understand that sometimes a frame can really help a story but in this case it pulled it in too many directions. I did enjoy learning more about the orphan trains, though--I hadn't heard of them before reading this.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Trish - That was exactly it! By the end it felt gimmicky and was just distracting.

Anonymous said...

I felt the same way about Vivian's decision. Plus, what little I do know of Native American rights in America, meant Molly's story was completely implausible so I struggled to finish this one.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

ardentreader - That's a great point. I didn't even think about that!