First published in 2013
273 pages, plus historical info and reading guide
My rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Of It:
This was a heartbreaking, heartwarming novel about a little-known part of American history. It was a quick, interesting and emotional read and I'm glad to have learned something new.
The Long Of It:
Irish-born Niamh (pronounced "Neev") Power has gone through more in her 9 years than most present-day adults can fathom. After surviving multiple horrors, she's wound up an orphan -- and there's not much place for parentless little leeches on society, especially Irish ones, in New York City in 1929.
So Niamh winds up on an orphan train, cars full of big-city children ranging from infants to early teens, shuttled off for the Midwest to be "adopted" -- or really, most often, to serve as free labor for their new families. Niamh ends up in Minnesota, and instead of improving, her situation gets increasingly, horrifyingly worse. So much worse that her trials are sometimes hard to read about.
Meanwhile, we're introduced to Molly, a 17-year-old foster child in Spruce Harbor, Maine. Her foster family sucks, she's given up trying to fit in at her new school, and she's struggling to carve out an identity for herself in spite of her lack of roots. After she gets caught stealing a copy of her favorite book, "Jane Eyre," from the school library, she's got to find some community service to do or she'll be sent to juvenile detention.
The only opportunity that presents itself is helping an old lady clean out her attic, jam-packed with decades of dusty boxes and ancient memories. Molly's not too excited at the prospect, but it turns out that her elderly new companion, Vivian, was an orphan child too, a child once called Niamh -- and Molly and Vivian may be exactly the friend the other needs.
I had never heard of orphan trains before, but they were fairly common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a way to get rid of New York's overpopulation of parentless children and provide what basically amounted to indentured servants for the working folks of middle America. Surely some orphan train kids had positive experiences, but Niamh's difficult one was far more common. The same goes for modern-day Molly and her apathetic to downright mean foster parents. It breaks my heart to think about kids in such rough conditions, and it almost makes me want to become a foster parent -- except we know nothing about raising kids and we move every couple years!
"Orphan Train" was a fast and well-written read giving voice to a fascinating and forgotten part of our country's history. It was also timely, considering the Syrian refugee crisis and the talk of building a wall along the Mexican border, to be reminded of the extreme prejudice that once existed against immigrants from countries we now consider to be our friends, like Ireland and Italy. "Orphan Train" is a must-read for any historical fiction fan.