Under Cover: Book Club Adopts “Orphan Train”

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Christina Baker Kline
Christina Baker Kline

Under Cover Book Club is back in session. I hope you all enjoyed February’s book, “Code Name Verity,” by Elizabeth Wein.

Without having to provide too big of a spoiler alert, I absolutely loved how the last chapters made us reexamine the series of events we had accepted as correct for the entire book, revealing how smart, savvy, and self-sacrificing Verity truly was.

If you didn’t have a chance to read along with us, I definitely recommend adding it to your reading wish list.

Our selection for March comes to us from reader Bobbie Banner. When I first launched the book club a couple of months ago, Bobbie weighed in with a hearty endorsement of  “Orphan Train,” by Christina Baker Kline, so I picked up a copy and added it to my calendar. I have just begun the book, and can already tell that I will be adding my own stamp of approval to the selection once I have finished.

Kline tells the story of Molly, a 17-year-old foster kid, who, due to stealing a library book, is compelled to either complete community service, or do a stint in juvenile hall.

Through her boyfriend, Molly is connected with Vivian, an elderly woman who needs someone to help clean out her attic. There is a whole life of accumulated leftovers stored – enough to provide Molly with ample hours to repay her debt to society, and hopefully convince her reticent foster mother to allow her to stay.

Upon seeing Vivian’s large home in a coastal town in Maine, Molly is at once aware of how wealthy her new “employer” must be. Instantly, she writes off the 91-year-old as someone whoOrphan Train book could never understand what her life is like, someone who has never had to put on a brave face, and fight just to survive.

What Molly couldn’t guess, however, is that Vivian was once an orphan too. After losing her Irish immigrant family, she was taken from her home in New York, and shipped off to Minnesota on what was called an Orphan Train.

Orphan Trains ran from 1854 to 1929, carrying orphaned and homeless children from crowded, East Coast cities to foster homes in the rural Midwest. For the trains’ passengers, life after stepping off the train was a crapshoot, determined by age and perceived capabilities, as well as, often, just sheer luck.

Lucky children would land in loving homes, with parents ready to receive them as one of their own. Most however, were seen as free labor, and were treated more like an unpaid farm hand than a member of the family. For many of these children, their “rescue” led them to a hardscrabble life full of manual labor and little opportunity for a true childhood.

In “Orphan Train,” Kline’s narrative bounces back and forth between the present day story of Molly, and Vivian’s experience as an orphan in depression-era Minnesota. As Molly and Vivian discover that they have more in common than one would think based on their social status and outward appearances, they begin to foster an unexpected friendship, born of common experiences and a shared struggle.

As readers, we are reminded that we are all sharing the human experience, and that when we judge – and often discard – a book based on its cover, we are depriving ourselves of learning the rich story carried inside.

To participate in the Under Cover Book Club, simply read the selection, then share your thoughts online at the Indy website.

Edie Crabtree is an avid reader and the mother of three busy boys. She can be reached at [email protected], or on the Facebook page Under Cover Book Corner.


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