Book Review: Orphan Train


The first orphan train in 1850

The first orphan train in 1850

My great-grandfather, William Van Ardsdale Drake, was a teenager living on a boat on the Hudson River in Manhattan before he was shipped on a Children’s Aid Society orphan train to Illinois during the Civil War.  His father John died in New Orleans from tuberculosis when William was just a few months old.  His widowed mother, Anna Vanamberg Drake, returned to New York City where she too died.

I love the story of my great-grandfather because he married Nellie Rittenhouse.  Her ancestors were passionate revolutionaries who manufactured the paper the Declaration of Independence was written upon, and Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia is named for one of them.  William’s ancestors were strident Loyalists who were “respectfully requested” to leave New York City or be hung after the American Revolution ended.  I imagine there was some serious ancestral grave-rolling when the two wed.

Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline

My late mother was a serious genealogist who ferreted out the details of William’s orphan train journey.  It must have been rugged because shortly after his arrival he was so ill that his doctors thought he was dead, and they were about to bury him when he came back to life.  William died when my grandfather was just four years old, and my great-grandmother Nellie remarried.

This is why I was eager to read Christina Baker Kline‘s bestselling novel Orphan Train.  It is set in the last days of the orphan trains and is a sobering yet uplifting glimpse into the lives of foster children.  In many respects, I think my great-grandfather and Vivian Daly had a better chance as foster kids than today’s Molly Ayer.

OrphanTrain Children

In a nutshell, Vivian and Molly meet in Maine where Vivian retired with her late husband.  Molly is a foster child who has no idea that she and the elderly, wealthy widow Vivian have so much in common:

The charms are all she has left of what used to be her life.

Jack [her boyfriend] is a nice guy.  But she’s been waiting for this.  Eventually, like everyone else ~ social workers, teachers, foster parents ~ he’ll get fed up, feel betrayed, realize Molly’s more trouble than she’s worth.  Much as she wants to care for him, and as good as she is at letting him believe that she does, she has never really let herself.  It isn’t that she’s faking it, exactly, but part of her is always holding back.  She has learned that she can control her emotions by thinking of her chest cavity as an enormous box with a chain lock.  She opens the box and stuffs in any stray unmanageable feelings, any wayward sadness or regret, and clamps it shut. . .

OrphanTrainChildren

It’s easier to assume that people have it out for you than to be disappointed when they don’t come through. . .

If there’s anything she hates most about being in the foster care system, it’s this dependence on people you barely know, your vulnerability to their whims.  She has learned not to expect anything from anybody.  Her birthdays are often forgotten; she is an afterthought at holidays.  She has to make do with what she gets, and what she gets is rarely what she asked for. . .

If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.  Molly learned long ago that a lot of the heartbreak and betrayal that other people fear their entire lives, she has already faced.  Father dead.  Mother off the deep end.  Shuttled around and rejected time and time again.  And still she breaths and sleeps and grows taller.  She wakes up every morning and puts on clothes.  So when she says it’s okay, what she means is that she knows she can survive just about anything.

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My great-grandfather was very fortunate to be embraced by wonderful people, and I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for foster and orphaned kids.  Although I’m a big believer in adopting rescue animals, it pisses me off something fierce that we are far more invested in rescuing an abandoned animal than an abandoned child.

My hope is that the success of Orphan Train will change hearts and minds.  We need to have more empathy, compassion, and love for children who are on their own simply because they lost the parent lottery.  I have zero patience with people who claim to be right-to-life, but who don’t give a damn about what happens to these unwanted, neglected children.

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