Orphan Train

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a historical fiction novel following two main characters, Vivian Daly and Molly Ayer. Their stories run parallel in a sense with Molly being in the foster system and Vivian having experienced the ‘Orphan Train’ when she was a child. It is a story filled with sorrow, pain, and triumph.

It’s difficult to imagine the fear Vivian and Molly must have experienced during their times in the system. Going from place to place in hopes of finding a home that would treat them with dignity, respect, and love. Most of the time, this wasn’t the case. Vivian was forced to work at a sewing shop, living in the woods with hardly any food or a place to sleep, and finally, was placed with her teacher, which ended up working out well for her. Molly was stuck in a situation with a cruel foster parent who was only ‘taking care’ of her for the money. She, too, ended up in a better place, with Vivian, at the end of the story.

  1. What were your thoughts on the book overall? Did you enjoy the read?
  2. Were you more invested in one character over the other? And why?
  3. Had you heard of Orphan Trains before reading this book? Do you think they had any benefit or were they a terrible piece of history?
  4. Did you find Vivian and Molly’s relationship believable?
  5. Would you recommend it to anyone else to read?
  6. What are your closing thoughts?

Feel free to comment/reply to each other’s comments, too! That’s what makes discussions a lot of fun. Just hit the reply button and you’ll see the option to reply directly to one another.

Next month’s book is All the Little Children by Jo Furniss. That discussion will be on Sunday, October 15th and will be posted in the book club section here on Writer’s Carnival.

We also have the next vote going on for November and December books. Bounce on over and place your vote here: https://www.writerscarnival.ca/november-and-december-book-club-voting/


Author Notes

47 Comments for “Orphan Train”

Kayleen Holt

says:

I love stories that teach me something or cause me to think about things in a different way, and Orphan Train certainly fits that description. With phrases like “Dandelions dance like sparklers in the grass,” (swoon!) the book is beautifully written, and its main characters are engaging and likable.

I found myself more interested in what would happen next in Vivian’s story, but I related to Molly’s character more. For example, when Vivian asks Molly to tell her about herself when they first meet, Molly struggles with how to respond. (“Where to start? What to reveal? This is the problem. It’s not a happy story, and Molly has learned through experience that people either recoil or don’t believe her or, worse, pity her.”) The most mundane and seemingly innocuous questions can be landmines for people who have suffered tragedy or had complicated childhoods.

I had never heard of the orphan trains before picking up this book, and it made me want to learn more about them. While that program was not a perfect solution by far, it seems it was based on good intentions. Obviously it needed stronger oversight and more careful consideration of which families the children went to. I hope today’s system is better, but I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories and have some personal experience that tells me that we still have a long way to go.

Even though the two main characters are so vastly different in age, personality, and social standing, I found their friendship perfectly believable. It was their experiences that brought them together, as their formative years followed similar trajectories. Some experiences are universal and timeless, as are our basic human needs to be loved and accepted.

I have already recommended this book to others, and I will be keeping an eye out for other books by Christina Baker Kline. I enjoyed her writing style.

A closing thought: All of us have heard, and many believe, that everything happens for a reason. This is a concept that Molly questions in the book when she asks, “So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason—to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?” I personally don’t believe that all things are part of a larger plan, but that they can be used for good. Maybe God or some other force is working to autocorrect the bad things—to put us back on a good path, but we have to help it along by seeing the good where it exists, and keeping hope alive. I’m interested to know what others think about this.

T-Robyn Lyle

says:

This book was a revelation to me. I had never heard of these “orphan trains” I can see why some must’ve ought it a good idea but it was so not monitored properly.
I was absolutely sucked right in.
I did find their relationship believable, i’ve seen this kind of relationship time and again. I think it mainly happens because we don’t live all generations together anymore and Grandmas often relate well to so called “difficult” children.
I’ve already reccommended this book to others.

Julia Ray

says:

I loved the book overall. I read it in two days. I enjoyed the story and how it was written by going from present time to the past. I was more interested in Vivian, her story was more in depth. I had heard of the book but not sure about the actual history of the Train. It is a great piece of history, sad that they couldn’t screen the families better so the kids didn’t go through the bad stuff. I loved Vivian’s and Molly’s relationship. Very believable. I was rooting for a close relationship. 🙂 I have already recommended it to several people. I even found out that a lady close to my hometown came to Kansas from that train. I didn’t know her but I knew who she was growing up. Loved the book, the story, and awesome writing.

Vickie Hilton

says:

1 & 5. I loved this book. Great story telling! I usually enjoy a bit of historical fiction and this did not disappoint. I read the book very quickly because it was just hard to put down. I am thinking of reading it again. And oh! How it broke my heart! I have recommended this book to many already. It will probably stay on my list of books you should read.

Vickie Hilton

says:

2. I was more wrapped up in Vivian than Molly. Although they had similar experiences, Vivian just pulled me in. And broke my heart

Kayleen Holt

says:

Her story was definitely heartbreaking. 🙁

I wonder whether—in addition to the fact that Vivian’s story is more fully developed—the author’s choice to tell Vivian’s story from the first person causes the reader to engage more closely with her than Molly, whose story is third-person.

Catherine Yahiaoui

says:

You may have a point there. I had not thought of that. Vivian’s story spanned many more years & seemed to have more trauma, so perhaps that was a factor in so many being more interested in her story.

Ceason Recore

says:

1. I liked the book overall although I think the author could have expanded more on Molly’s character and where her life took her. I read the book in a day I was very interested in it.
2. I was more interested in Vivian’s character, maybe it was the history aspect or the fact that I felt the book was mostly about her.
3. I had read a book prior to this about Orphan trains and i think of it as a bizzare piece of history and also very sad.
4. I don’t think of Vivian and Molly’s relationship believable I think they could have had some kind of kinship but for Molly to just up and move into Vivian’s place is not very believable. Molly was known as a punk teenager and i think many people would protest her moving in with an innocent rich old lady.
5. Yes I would recommend it to someone else.

Dixie Ohlander

says:

5 & 6. Would you recommend the book and closing thoughts:

I would definitely recommend this book! It’s a fascinating look at a little-known piece of history through a riveting work of fiction. 🙂

Thinking about the orphan trains as compared to modern social work institutions brings to light how far work with orphaned, neglected, or troubled kids has advanced. Although not perfect, overall our children’s welfare systems provide for basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, education. Yes, there are definitely abusive situations; but loving foster homes or adoptive parent homes very likely outnumber those that are found to be abusive.

Anisa Claire

says:

I hope that’s true. I would like to believe it is. And we have come a long way since the Orphan Train days, thankfully. There was very little follow-up back in those days and I’m not sure kid’s had as many rights or were seen the same as they are today. That likely made a big difference, too.

Vickie Hilton

says:

At the least a foster child would NEVER be left in such horrible living conditions. One look in that house and not only would the foster child be going somewhere else, within 24 hours and investigation on the family!

Kayleen Holt

says:

I would hope a foster child would not be left in such horrible conditions. I’ve seen one go to a home with no running water (in the 2000s when this shouldn’t be acceptable in the US), no stove or other way to prepare hot meals, no interior doors for privacy, and big holes all the way through the floor (to the crawlspace). So I have my doubts. 🙁

Dixie Ohlander

says:

4. Did you find Vivian and Molly’s relationship believable?

Yes, I did find their relationship believable because of the similarities in their stories and how those stories shaped their personalities, which I feel were quite similar. The age difference didn’t matter because they were able to relate on a deeper level given their life experiences.

Dixie Ohlander

says:

3. Had you heard of Orphan Trains before reading this book? Do you think they had any benefit or were they a terrible piece of history?

I wasn’t aware of the Orphan Trains at all! It was fascinating to learn about their place in that era of history and it definitely makes me want to do more research into the real stories of the orphan trains. This fits perfectly with the blog I am building, which centers around old news stories. Until I do more research, I’m not sure how to answer the second part of the question; did the trains have a benefit or do they have a darker place in history.

Melissa Pierce

says:

I had never heard of Orphan Trains before this book either. It amazes me the amount of historical things that took place in this country that are still relatively unknown today. I love when I come across something new to learn about the past of the country, even the less pleasant topics. The Orphan Trains will definitely be something I look forward to learning more about.

Dixie Ohlander

says:

I’m sure if we do our research, we can find more information about the orphan trains. There are so many old, primary resources that are being digitized today. And if newspapers and other pubs are in the public domain, they are accessible to the public and royalty free.

Dixie Ohlander

says:

2. Were you more invested in one character over the other? And why?

I was more invested in Vivian because her character was better developed than Molly’s; that’s likely because her experience exposed the history of the orphan trains and how being part of that greatly impacted the life in so many ways. Also, because her character lived to be 90, there would be room for a deeper, richer story.

Dixie Ohlander

says:

1. What were your thoughts on the book overall? Did you enjoy the read?

I loved the book. It’s well written and immediately engages the reader through the first person narratives. I liked how the author switched between Vivian’s story and Molly’s story throughout the text; it kept me up on what was happening with each character. I think the book would be much less riveting if it was separated into sections, one belonging to Molly and the other, Vivian. Interweaving their stories was necessary to build the similarities and connections between them.

Melissa Pierce

says:

1. What were your thoughts on the book overall? Did you enjoy the read?

I wasn’t sure it would be a book I would enjoy but once I started it, I didn’t put it down until I finished it. I think it was a very interesting look into not only the history of what happened to orphans back in those times but I loved that it all came from the perspective of one of the orphans instead of a narrator take on what happened to those kids.

2.Were you more invested in one character over the other? And why?

I was more invested in Vivian and I think it is because it goes a little more deeply into her life and she has more story to tell because she is older and has lived longer than Molly.

3.Had you heard of Orphan Trains before reading this book? Do you think they had any benefit or were they a terrible piece of history?

I had never heard of Orphan Trains before reading this book. I think they were started with good intentions by caring people but weren’t necessarily the best solution for the children aboard them. I think that, while imperfect and definitely not always in the best interest of the children, it was the way the foster care system was run back then. I also think it is eye opening to see with Molly and Vivian’s experiences as orphans just how similar the system is still run as far as actually placing kids where they are a good fit and will get the love and attention they need.

4.Did you find Vivian and Molly’s relationship believable?

I did find it believable. I could see the shared experience, even though very different, bringing them close together because they had an understanding of each other’s lives that most people in their lives wouldn’t truly understand.

5.Would you recommend it to anyone else to read?

I would recommend it as it was a well written book that tells an interesting story.

6.What are your closing thoughts?

Overall, I thought this was a heartbreaking tale and I really felt for all of the orphans mentioned in this story. It was great to see towards the end how some of them ended up in life. I loved that the book ended with both Molly and Vivian together and going on to happier times and new beginnings. It was a subject that I was not at all familiar with and made me wonder about the other orphans who rode those trains during that time.

Anisa Claire

says:

Awesome answers, Melissa! The ending was really nice that they were able to move forward together and that Molly helped Vivian get in touch with her daughter. That may not have ever happened, otherwise. So, yeah, even though it was horribly sad and both had been through so much, it ended on a positive note.

Catherine Yahiaoui

says:

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I had heard of the orphan trains before. I believe it was 60 minutes that did a piece on them. Plus my daughter had already read Orphan Train. I was perhaps a little more interested in Vivian’s story than Molly’s, but perhaps only because there was more to tell. I actually broke down & cried when Dutchy was killed.

Anisa Claire

says:

I didn’t know there was a documentary on them. I’ll have to check it out. And I was going to say the same thing, the reason I was maybe more interested in Vivian’s story was only because there was more of it. Yes!!!! That was horribly sad 🙁 After everything she’d been through…

Catherine Yahiaoui

says:

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone. I also thought it interesting that both Vivian & Molly had items from their early lives that were very meaningful to them – little symbols of happier times connected to a relative.

Melissa Pierce

says:

I had never heard of Orphan Trains before this book but found it very interesting to learn more about them. I was also extremely sad about Dutchy dying after such a short time of them being back together and how hard their lives had been up to that point. I loved Vivian and Molly’s tokens of home and family that they kept with them through the years too. It was a sweet gesture and something they had to remind them of better times when their lives were at rough points.

Dixie Ohlander

says:

I would love to see the documentary/60 Minutes segment on the orphan trains. I wonder if it’s available anywhere. That would be awesome!

Catherine Yahiaoui

says:

I am assuming the piece I saw on the Orphan trains was on 60 minutes because we always watch that show & it seems like something they would report on. Just not positive it was 60 minutes.

Stephanie Anders

says:

I really enjoyed the book and I was shocked to hear about Orphan Trains. I found both characters fascinating and their relationship is believable to me. I would recommend this book and I am looking forward to reading the next one.

Anisa Claire

says:

For me, this was a book I couldn’t put down. I started reading it and finished it almost in one sitting. I was invested in both characters, though I think I leaned a little more toward Vivian than I did Molly. I had no idea orphan trains exisited before I read this book and I think the intention was probably good, however, I think the execution lacked follow-up and real care on the part of the social workers back then. I was really hoping Vivian would be able to stay with her teacher. I thought that was a great place for her to be, but then she ended up in a great home at the end, so that worked out. I would definitely recommend this book to other people and may even read it again, myself, in the future!

Melissa Pierce

says:

I was hoping Vivian was going to get to stay with her teacher and Mrs. Murphy too. I was worried for her when she went to live with the Nielsen’s but it turned out to be a good fit for her. She had so many ups and downs that it was great to start seeing her in a good place and doing well.

Lynn Toennessen

says:

Had you heard of Orphan Trains before reading this book? Do you think they had any benefit or were they a terrible piece of history?

No, I hadn’t heard of the orphan trains before. I don’t think they were terrible. I think they were meant to find good homes for the children but some of the children ended up going to bad people.

Did you find Vivian and Molly’s relationship believable?

Yes, I did.

Would you recommend it to anyone else to read?

Yes, most definitely!

What are your closing thoughts?

It’s sad but true that some orphans from the trains were used as child labor and abused by their foster parents…treated like slaves. You had to do their will or you suffered for it.

Melissa Pierce

says:

I agree that the intentions of the Orphan Trains were good and that it was sad to see how some of the orphans were treated by the families they were given to.

Lynn Toennessen

says:

What were your thoughts on the book overall? Did you enjoy the read?

I thought the book was very interesting, and really enjoyed following the lives of Vivian and Molly.

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