“Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline
c.2013, William Morrow
$14.99 / $16.99 Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
Your memories could fill a thousand scrapbooks.
On this page here, you’d glue that first-day-of-school smell. If you could, you’d paste the sound of your father coming home from work. Your mother’s voice would be saved between pages of perfect-weather days, lost loves, and hot cocoa. You’d fasten down puppy breath, running through sprinklers, and birthday cake.
You could fill volumes with the memories you hold, but Vivian Daly has packed hers in boxes enough to fill an attic. And in the new book “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline, the time has come to empty them.
Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayers hoped that Ralph and Dina’s house would be the last one she’d have to endure; she’d cycle out of the foster care system soon, and a last-minute move was ridiculous. It was obvious, though, that Dina didn’t like her, so Molly started packing after she was caught stealing a ratty library paperback. She wanted the book and she was sure Dina wanted a convenient excuse to kick her out.
Molly knew she was facing either a new foster home or short-time juvie, until her friend-cum-boyfriend, Jack, came up with another solution: his mother worked for a ninety-one-year-old woman who needed help cleaning her house. It was the perfect place for Molly to serve her community-service punishment. It was the perfect place to wait out her time in the foster system.
Molly figured she’d be bored.
She didn’t figure that Vivian Daly would be so interesting, and she began to think Vivian would be a good subject for a senior-year project on “portage.” Surely in her ninety-one years, Vivian had carried something dear from one place to another…
Nine-year-old Niahm (pronounced “Neev”) Power held tight to the claddagh necklace that her Gram had given her. It was 1929 and the gift was a lifetime ago: Gram gave it to her before the boat ride to America; before Da, Maisie and the twins died in the fire, and before Niahm was put on the train heading west.
It was before Naihm learned that trust was everything when you have nothing else.
I always know that I’ve got a good novel in my hands when I spontaneously gasp, “Oh, no!” while I’m reading.
I did that a lot with “Orphan Train.”
And yet, I have a hard time nailing down why. The appeal of this book isn’t the well-crafted characters or the what-would-I-do-if-it-was-me feeling they give you. It’s not that author Christina Baker Kline based it loosely on real historical events that many adults are surprised to learn about – although that’s pretty appealing in itself.
No, I think the draw here is in those gasping moments, the “You don’t want me anymore?” poignancy, the desperate sense of loss embedded in this story, all of which sneak up on you while you’re reading and make it unforgettable.
Crack this book open just one page, in fact, and I don’t think you’ll be able to let it go. “Orphan Train” is one of those books that sticks to your heart like glue.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.