Book #11: Orphan Train

Fast facts:

Book title: “Orphan Train”

Author: Christina Baker Kline

Genre/Audience: Historical fiction; meant for adults, but aside from a single mature scene, the book reads as if meant for young adults

Rating: 7/10

Worth the read?: I think so

Orphan Train is another book that was recommended to me by a friend. I was excited about this one, and although I look back and take issue with some aspects of the novel, I think it was definitely worth reading.

The story follows two main characters, an orphaned Irish immigrant in the 1920s-30s-40s and a teenager, Molly, who is in foster care in 2011. Almost every issue I take with the book comes from the latter character’s story line.

The historical part of the novel, which provides the book’s name, really held my interest. I appreciated the narrative behind this character’s life experience, and I really felt like Baker Kline knew what she was talking about when explaining the history behind the orphan train that carried Niamh (Vivian) from New York to Minnesota. When I was reading the chapters about Vivian’s life, I was enthralled. When I wasn’t reading her chapters, though, I was slightly annoyed and/or uninterested.

It bothered me first and foremost that the novel was written in the present tense. After a while I adjusted and was able to ignore it, but it’s just clunky and weird in some places.

The main fault I found in the book differs from a lot of reviews I read online, which focus on Molly’s foster mom, Dina, being a flat, stereotype-seeped character. Those reviews aren’t wrong; Dina is awful, and it seems like Baker Kline tried to put every awful thing she could imagine into one character. As a result, Dina is unbelievable and eye-roll-inducing. However, my biggest issue was with Molly.

She was generally likeable and sympathetic, but her story felt forced and bland. Yes, the character had been through a lot, but her present situation seemed highly dramatized. She was sentenced to 50 hours of community service (or juvenile detention if she chose not to complete her service)…for stealing…a library book.

That doesn’t really happen. Like, think about it. In what universe would a teenage female with no previous record be sentenced to 50 hours of community service for slipping an old, ratty book under her shirt?

Additionally, sections of the book that focused on her Native American heritage weren’t believable. Dialogue relating to her heritage greatly diverged in tone from every other bit of dialogue in the book, almost as if the author wasn’t sure how to make it an important piece of the story. The reality is that it wasn’t important, and the author tried too hard to make it so.

I get that it was necessary for her character to be likeable in order for the book to work, but there are a lot of other things Molly could’ve done wrong that would still allow her to be likeable. The whole point of her character is that her edge is a defense mechanism to keep people from getting too close, but it just seems to me like the author went a little too strong on the “pity this character” recipe.

My biggest frustration is that the book is actually about Vivian, but the story progresses only through Molly’s character. So she’s necessary, but she’s also so blah. Her foster parents are flat and fake. She is pretend-edgy, and her crime is unrealistic and unrealistically punished.

I complain now, but in the process of reading I genuinely enjoyed the book. It could be so much better with more thoughtfulness surrounding Molly’s character and life. She had great potential, but in the end, she reads more like plot device than genuine human being. Vivian, on the other hand, feels pretty real and relatable.

When I sat down to write this post, I thought I had really loved the book. Now, as I finish writing, I see that maybe I didn’t love it quite the way I’d thought. You win some, you lose some. Vivian alone makes the book worthwhile.

Another book review coming soon!