I want to talk to you this morning about a book that describes a friendship between two women: a ninety-one year old woman whose life is mostly in the past, and a seventeen year old girl who is waiting for her ‘real’ life to begin. Their names are Vivian and Molly, and it takes Molly (and the reader) about half of the book to discover just how much they have in common.
This carefully researched novel is Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, and it is based on stories about abandoned children who were literally shipped on trains from the east coast to Midwestern farm states, and at each stop the children were herded into town halls or churches to be cursorily examined by local farmers—the ‘lucky’ ones adopted on the spot, the not so lucky herded back onto the train and sent to the next stop. The orphan trains ran for decades (from 1859 to 1929).
But while this historical phenomenon is the backdrop and inspiration for the novel, the story itself is about the budding friendship between the girl, Molly, and the old woman, Vivian. Molly is a Penobscot Indian who has bounced from foster home to foster home for almost all of her young life. Now, only months from reaching an age that will release her from the jurisdiction of the state, she has been busted for stealing a book, and the only thing that saves her from Juvie (juvenile detention) is an agreement to enter into a community-service position with Vivienne, who needs help cleaning out her attic.
Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that “cleaning out the attic” means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack. Out of the two dozen boxes she and Vivian have been through so far, only a short pile of musty books and some yellowed linen have been deemed too ruined to keep.
As the cleaning and organizing proceeds, Vivian’s own past as an orphan unfolds; Molly changes her tone of exasperation over the fact that it seems that nothing is getting accomplished, and begins to see herself as an ally in retracing the history of the woman next to her.
In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes—Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process—in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.
This little novel skillfully swings back and forth between Spruce Harbor, Maine in the second decade of the 21st century and New York City 1929 as well as hardscrabble Midwestern towns that are stopping points for the Orphan train. Besides the tense and troubled present for Molly who has about exhausted her options in the foster program, there is a mystery that unfolds as Vivian attempts to discover elements of her own orphaned childhood. I’m not about to reveal the mystery or it’s outcome, but the emotional similarity in the lives of the two lead characters and their eventual bonding is beautifully wrought.
The babies and the cute, very young children are the first to be adopted as the orphan train heads west. Boys who are old enough and strong enough for hard farmwork are also often chosen along with girls who can help around the house and farm. The not so attractive and the frail are paraded out at each stop, and then put back on the train. As their adult attendant informs them before their first stop. “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.”
Other than signing some papers that promise food, shelter, and education for those old enough, there is no oversight over the lives of the children who are adopted. Vivian learns quickly that the agreement to send the children to school is observed only if it is convenient for the adoptive parents, while beatings and deprivation are far more likely than educational opportunity. For Molly in the foster program and Vivian on the orphan train, hard labor and sexual exploitation are the norm.
While not being adopted is Vivian’s fear as her train goes from stop to stop, she soon discovers that adoption may be far worse. Molly, too, understands that foster homes may be more dangerous than state care. As she listens to her foster-care worker:
I listen … and nod politely as she talks, but it’s hard to concentrate. I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
As Molly listens to descriptions Vivian gives of her early life in Ireland, and then of her life in New York before the death of her parents, and finally her many stops in Midwestern towns and life with different families, she comes to see how very similar their lives are. Both learn to pass; both feel broken inside.
Despite the sadness of this novel, it is a lovely story. The unlikely friendship that springs up between Molly and Vivian constitutes a sort of salvation for each of them. As the author says in the Prologue,
I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened…I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.