Monday, May 19, 2014

Parallel Stories: Orphan Train

I've always had strong feelings about older adolescents in foster care, particularly as they get closer to aging out.  Christina Baker Kline's new novel moves back and forth between the present-day story of Molly Ayer, a seventeen-year-old girl who's been moved back and forth from one foster home to another. While her foster father seems motivated to care for her, his wife is more than resistant. (Kline tends to make her something of a caricature of the religious right, a weakness of the narrative.)  When she is caught trying to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from the library--a paperback, the worst copy of three in the library--she has two choices--community service or juvenile detention.  Her boyfriend helps her land a job working for the elderly woman who employs his mother as a housekeeper.

Vivian Daly, over ninety years old, lives in an old mansion, and her attic is full of boxes from her life.  Molly's job, at least at the outset, is to help her clean out the attic.  Instead, she goes through the items form a lifetime as Vivian recounts her own story, an Irish immigrant who loses her family in a fire shortly after their arrival in the United States.  She becomes part of a group of orphans taken by well-meaning groups by train from town to town--following advance advertisements--to find families.  Most of the families are looking not for additional children but farm workers or child care.

Vivian goes through two "failed adoptions"--horrendous experiences--before ending up with a couple who own a store and need her help.  Despite their kind detachment, they offer Vivian opportunities of education and a job at which she excels.

She shares the story with Molly--as part of a "portage project" in her Native American studies class. I learned that  Maine is the only state that has Native American history as a curriculum requirement.  Molly finds Vivian a perfect subject for the project:  Interview someone who has moved, asking about decisions concerning what to take along and what to leave behind.

Molly softens under Vivian's roof, particularly since the elderly woman doesn't react to Molly's external attempts to rebel--hair, jewelry, clothes, attitude.  In what becomes a mutually satisfying relationship, Vivian gives Molly a second chance, and Molly opens up to her the world of the internet, helping her to track down what survives of her family she though she had lost forever.

While the premise of the "orphan train" seems farfetched, Kline provides historical background on her website.  Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 children were part of the project, intended to give these children, many of them from Irish immigrant families, a chance to find work, education, and families.

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