Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Club: Orphan Train

One of my goals this year is to actively participate in my office book club every month. I didn't read any of the selections in 2014 -- mainly because I was too busy reading about pregnancy, birth plans, infant sleep patterns, and what to expect during your first year with a tiny human. But now that life has calmed down a little I'm excited to occasionally do some reading for pleasure again -- even if I can only accomplish it on the bus or while pumping at work.
 
Our February selection was Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. It highlighted an interesting piece of American history that I had previously known nothing about...

During the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of orphaned and homeless children from overcrowded Eastern cities were transported to the Midwest on "orphan trains" to be offered as farm laborers in exchange for room, board, and education. This historical novel describes one little girl's story as she immigrates from Ireland with her family, is orphaned after her family is killed in a tenement fire in NYC, and then placed on board an Orphan Train bound for Minnesota. After two failed placements, she eventually finds a loving couple who raises her as their daughter.

The story is juxtaposed against the modern story of an adolescent girl in the foster care system in Maine. As community service, she agrees to help an elderly woman (formerly the little girl from the Orphan Train) clean her attic, which contains numerous boxes full of mementos that bring back memories from her earlier life.

All this could have added up to a superb historical novel, but for me it fell short of exceptional. Many reviewers have raved about Orphan Train, but I would (generously) give it only three out of five stars.

Vivian's story, which takes place during the Depression era, is quite interesting and the plot propels the reader quickly. You can't help but wonder what will happen to this poor orphaned girl who has no control over her own life and no one who loves her. But the present day, cliché story of Molly seemed somehow unrealistic, and it felt like an annoying interruption to Vivian's engrossing and vividly detailed story. 

Although I don't think Orphan Train is intended to be a YA novel, it's written on about a seventh or eight grade reading level. The writing is simplistic, it lacked focus, and the ending was predictable. I found it to be disappointing overall, but it's an easy read with historical significance if that's what you're looking for. 
 
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