Book Talk: Orphan Train

8:30:00 PM

"Now then. Where shall we begin?"

Historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres since I picked up a "diary" of Elizabeth I at my elementary school's Scholastic book fair. I continued expanding my literary horizons as the years went on, but I never stopped being drawn to stories that may not have happened, but are true nonetheless. My latest read gave me the same feeling that first book did - of anticipation and connection to a world long gone - and I was eager to dive in. 

Orphan Train chronicles the lives of two women who appear to have little in common, but whose lives converge in unexpected ways. Set in both the 1930s and 2011, Vivian and Molly share stories that redefine survival, strength, and what it means to find your family. 

When Molly, a 17 year old "delinquent," gets wrangled into helping 91 year old Vivian clear out her attic, she discovers that Vivian's past is not unlike her own - and that Vivian was once a part of the Orphan Train movement, a sort of pre-organized-foster-care program responsible for sending orphaned or homeless children from the eastern United States to the midwest.

I was absolutely fascinated by this little-known part of American history, and eager to learn what I could. As it turns out, it was chance and luck that decided the fate of hundreds of thousands of children; some found welcoming homes, while others worked as indentured servants or were severely neglected. Along with Molly, readers soon discover that there's much more to quiet Vivian than meets they eye, and that unearthing both their pasts may be the key to letting go of them.

Having absolutely no foster care experience to speak of, I think this novel shines a light on the "brokenness" of the system - both then and now - but I think there's a lack of inclusion of the flip side of those terrible situations that might be frustrating to those who have had positive foster care experiences.

I gobbled this book up in the span of a few hours, if that gives you any indication of how much I enjoyed it. While I felt there was something missing from the chapters coming from Molly's perspective, I was so eager to continue discovering details about Vivian's life that I took whatever I could get! In spite of not being overly fond of Molly's narration, I really enjoyed the connection and understanding that developed between these two characters. There's no bravado, just recognition of their shared history, of things that can only be understood by those who've experienced it themselves.

You don't start a story called Orphan Train expecting to feel anything but sad - at least, I didn't - but I was surprised by the depth and breadth of the emotions I felt when reading this book. This was definitely an enjoyable and eye-opening read, and as with most historical fiction, it encouraged me to broaden the scope of my understanding of a time in history that I don't know much about.

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